11,000 Brazilian families sue Norwegian miner for environmental disaster

. Feb 10, 2021
Class-action lawsuit seeks reparation from Norwegian giant for disaster State inspectors monitoring contamination levels in the water of Barcarena, Pará. "Another case of a mining giant which ignored the risks," says lawyer. Photo: Ag.Pará

In early February 2018, a river of red mud rushed through 13 communities in the town of Barcarena, in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. While the region was being battered by heavy rains at the time, the sludge flooding the city was not merely dirty water.

Months later, in the dry season, the same town was enveloped in by a red dust cloud, harming the soil and air quality. According to later investigations, the toxic dust and red mud were caused by a leak of chemical tailings in a nearby facility owned by Norwegian mining firm Hydro Alunorte, regarded as being the largest bauxite refinery in the world.

</p> <p>The leak meant disaster for riverside communities, who rely on the natural resources of rivers and streams for survival. The only water they consume comes from these sources, and most of their diet is based on the fish caught in rivers.</p> <p>Two years on, those affected by the leak in Barcarena are still awaiting compensation. On Monday, they filed a class action in the Dutch capital Amsterdam against Hydro Alunorte&#8217;s parent company <a href="">Norsk Hydro</a>, of which the Norwegian government owns a 34.3-percent stake.&nbsp;</p> <p>Norsk Hydro oversees three facilities in Pará. It extracts bauxite in the town of Paragominas, which is processed in Barcarena, before being transformed into aluminum at Albras. However, the headquarters of these three companies are located in the Netherlands, along with their major shareholders, who are a part of Norsk Hydro&#8217;s corporate structure. According to international law, legal action may be launched in their place of residence.</p> <p>The class action was filed by multinational law consortium PGMBM, representing 40,000 residents of communities in Barcarena. The plaintiffs say that &#8220;the victims were exposed to toxic waste from the processing of aluminum, which can cause health problems, such as an increase in the incidence of cancer, Alzheimer&#8217;s disease, skin diseases, stomach problems, and diarrhea.&#8221;</p> <p>A microcosm of Brazil, Barcarena is an unequal and — in some cases — desperately poor town. With a population of 121,000, the average income of formal workers is 2.9 times the national minimum wage, yet 46.4 percent of its residents earn up to half of the minimum wage each month — just over BRL 500 (USD 92.64). A little over one-quarter of homes in Barcarena have access to an adequate sewage system. Only 16.2 percent of houses are located on paved streets with sidewalks and drains.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="norsk hydro disaster" class="wp-image-56497" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 600w, 1300w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>In 2018, a river of red mud rushed through 13 communities. Photo: Ag.Pará</figcaption></figure> <h2>Impatience with the Brazilian courts</h2> <p>The accusations filed by PGMBM target the industrial activities of Norsk Hydro&#8217;s three Pará operations: Paragominas, Alunorte, and Albras. While the affected families had filed an action for damages in Brazil, delays led them to seek justice in the Dutch courts.</p> <p>After five cases filed by organizations representing around 11,000 families in Pará, the Brazilian courts ratified a settlement between Norsk Hydro and the Federal Prosecution Service, but the victims complained it was &#8220;not sufficient.&#8221;</p> <p>The victims&#8217; case in Brazil is based on a report from public health organization Instituto Evandro Chagas, issued on request by federal prosecutors. Researchers collected soil and water samples from communities in the vicinity of Norsk Hydro&#8217;s operations and, after laboratory analysis, they found the presence of heavy metals such as lead.</p> <p>In April 2018, Hydro Alunorte was ordered to pay BRL 150 million (USD 27.82 million) in environmental damages for the leaks of effluents. The company appealed and the case has yet to be concluded.</p> <p>The unauthorized release of water led authorities and the courts to order Hydro to stop producing alumina in Alunorte, which caused a partial shutdown at Albras and stoppages that lasted 15 months.</p> <h2>Norsk Hydro had &#8220;secret&#8221; pipelines</h2> <p>Experts from Instituto Evandro Chagas proved that, beyond leaking toxic mining waste in Barcarena, Hydro used &#8220;a clandestine pipeline to release untreated effluents&#8221; into a series of springs of the Murucupi River.</p> <p>On March 9, 2018, prosecutors in Pará identified a second unauthorized waste pipeline during an inspection at the Alunorte facility. This channel was used during periods of heavy rainfall to release untreated effluents directly into the Pará River. Six days later, state environmental authorities found a third illegal pipeline.</p> <p>After denying any wrongdoing, Hydro later admitted the existence of one of the clandestine channels in a statement. &#8220;During one of the inspections, a pipeline was found with a small discharge of red-colored water in the refinery area,&#8221; it said.</p> <p>Hydro then apologized for what it called the &#8220;completely unacceptable&#8221; discharge of untreated water during heavy rains in the vicinity of Alunorte, but it denied this release of waste had contaminated the local environment. It promised to &#8220;immediately seal&#8221; the pipeline.</p> <p>Later that year, it was found that the same company owed BRL 17 million in fines to the Brazilian Environmental Protection Agency (Ibama) for contaminating rivers in the same region back in 2009, causing the death of a large part of the aquatic life in the waterway.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to that case, Hydro&#8217;s operations caused proven harm to the environment since 2002, by way of leaks in the company&#8217;s tailings dam. The company has always maintained its innocence.&nbsp;</p> <p>On Tuesday, Hydro issued a statement saying it had yet to be notified about the class action in the Netherlands, and that it would &#8220;respond to the Dutch courts as requested.&#8221;&nbsp;</p> <h2>Brumadinho and Mariana</h2> <p>In the class action against Norsk Hydro, lawyers say that the Norwegian company is following a &#8220;similar script&#8221; to the tragedies of <a href="">Brumadinho</a> and <a href="">Mariana</a>, in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. “Both by the mining company neglecting basic safety requirements in the extraction of aluminum in Barcarena, and by its denial of reparations to those affected by the damage it caused.”</p> <p>&#8220;This is another case of a mining giant which ignored the risks and those affected by its behavior. This case is an opportunity for the company to take responsibility and for those affected to receive justice,&#8221; says PGMBM partner Pedro Martins, in charge of the case.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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