Cleaning up the mud spilled by the Samarco dam

Cleaning up the mud spilled by the Samarco dam The collapse of an iron rod dam spilled the equivalent of 25,000 Olympic-sized pools of mud.

This series about the Mariana dam collapse was originally published by Brio, in Portuguese. It was translated by Gustavo Ribeiro and edited by Christine Bootes

Chapter 4: Burying The Bones

Dawn broke on November 6 in Barra Longa with the city in mourning, residents crying as their city was covered with brown clay with black spots of iron ore. The light of day revealed the extension of the losses, hidden by the obscurity of the night. It was as though someone had poured a back cushion of asphalt from the sky. It filled houses, squares, schools. Toninho Papagaio would remember November 6 as the day Barra Longa stopped.

José Francisco Raimundo, a.k.a. Sabiá, lit a cigarette, opened a can of beer and stood silently in front of what remained of the square he used to spend time in every day. Not a single house had been spared by the river of mud, and it was only possible to enter them by tearing down their walls. He didn’t know where to begin with cleaning up his house, or how to restart his life. All he could do was cry. And so did another man, standing nearby.

José was devastated, standing next to the body of one of twelve cows that were lost to the mud. One of them was still in agony. José and his wife Sônia took their living from the milk they sell. “Not even on the day his father died did I see him crying like that,” Sônia recalls – she also lost 100kg of coffee she would sell in the city.

The small portion of cattle spared from the tragedy was crying out of thirst. The surviving dogs wandered around, with their noses and legs colored by the mud.

Street salesman Altair Vital looked at his house, buried in mud, remembering what he had just lost: two washing machines, a fridge, and countless memories. Housemaid Rita de Cássia Fraga spent her morning gathering the corpses of her 80 geese and ducks, which she had heard agonizing in pain for hours prior.

Salesman Rômulo Gonçalves crosses Toninho Papagaio. Ashamed, apologizes for not having listened to the warnings, and regretted having fought with him. It was the first of many apologies addressed to the cabdriver who tried to save his neighbors.

Farmer Antônio Albergaria looked to the garden where he used to plant papaya, yam, and taro – the source of his living. He lowered his head in disbelief as he confirmed that nothing was left. He remembered his grandmother saying that when doomsday would come, many unexpected things would start happening. It was probably the beginning of the final judgment, Albergaria thought, as he had never seen anything like this in his 83 years of life. “Will they recover everything?” he asked himself.

This is the same question posed by Mayor Fernando Magalhães. With the help of his press secretary, Greison Anderson, he started to measure the losses caused by the mud coming from Samarco. Anderson had memorized all the numbers: 155 houses destroyed, four bridges taken down, six neighborhoods, and USD 14.2 million in losses. No deaths, fortunately, but hundreds of homeless people who took refugee in houses of relatives.

Some folks had never heard of the mining activities in the region; nor had they heard about a dam close to their homes. Better-informed people knew that there was a pipeline running below them, but that was it. Even after the disaster, many couldn’t figure out where the mud was coming from. Toninho Papagio broke down to Antônio Albergaria, asking why there was a dam only for the residue. “It is like cultivating sugarcane. You take the juice and then you have to do something with what’s left. That’s the principle of the residue-dam,” he explained.

“Samarco will have to pay for everything, especially because they have never said that the dam was dangerous. I’ve had no phone calls from them, nothing. Had they warned us, we could have prepared better,” Magalhães explains angrily. According to him, the mayor’s office had no money and was laying people off to break even despite it being one of the city’s biggest employers.

The first day after the tragedy was a day of mourning. Few ventured to check the extent of the damage. But the following day, Barra Longa was awakened by hundreds of soldiers clad in yellow uniforms and rubber boots. They sing: “Our General is Christ, we follow his steps, and the enemy shall not resist.” These were volunteers from the Baptist Church, coming from all over Brazil to help.

They quickly set up camp next to Saint Joseph’s Church, the main church in the city, and start assigning everyone tasks. One group was to clean houses, another to make a list of necessary items and residents’ requests, a third one to give religious and spiritual support, and the last to take care of everyone’s meals. They were proud to have arrived on the scene even before Samarco’s representatives did – and quickly began compiling a list of affected residents.

The clean-up job was not an easy one, since it took up to three hours to clean just 10 square meters in each house. Rita de Cássia Fraga thanked the volunteers saving her house from the mud. Others also could go back to their partially destroyed homes thanks to the Baptist “army.” In one of the houses, the only items that survived were a microwave oven, a wall calendar, and a few heads of garlic.

Saint Joseph’s became a collection center, receiving donations from all over Brazil. Gallons of water, food, clothes, shoes, and even water trucks were sent. Just like the donations, the number of volunteers grew bigger by the day. Hailton Batista Jr, a theology student, had come to stay two days – but wound up in Barra Longa for two weeks, spending his own money to stay there and help. According to him, 1,500 more members of his church had come to the disaster site, and others wanted to open a chapter of the Baptist church there.

According to the volunteers and residents, Samarco arrived at Barra Longa a full four days after the dam collapse. The company brought trucks, tractors, and men to clean up the mud, but most of the work had already been finished by the Army of Christ. The Carmo river had already returned to its normal course. It had taken three days for the mud to loosen and fall back into the river, leaving behind traces of destruction – as if an artist had painted huge strokes of brown into the landscape. Each tree in the main avenue is covered in brown. The cattle were starving and thirsty; dogs sniffed around the streets looking for something to eat.

Samarco’s machinery had to tear down walls to reveal what had been buried, revealing that the mud froze the moment in which residents were forced to abandon their houses. In Antônio Riso’s restaurant, only a few objects remained: a freezer, some beer crates, a microphone, and a landline telephone ripped from the wall and hanging by its cord. In the city’s elementary school, only two chairs were left, and the alphabet stickers taped to the wall were no longer visible due to the mud. At Nô’s Bar, only the wooden counter and a refrigerator were left; a few useless wires dangled from the walls. And next to the bar, the mud had torn through a house: the TV had been thrown onto the bed, a mattress was resting in the corridor, the pool was destroyed, and the red flag of the Barcelona Football Club had turned brown.

A whole month after the tragedy, rooms would still be filled with clay – almost as though they were archeological sites, a window into what Barra Longa once was. And a reminder of what Barra Longa might never again be.

What The Mud Stole

With no paved roads around the city, Barra Longa was an island of tranquility. Residents took pride in the luxury of being able to sleep with their front doors unlocked, leaving their bikes without a padlock – but after the disaster, everything was different.

Sônia Lana was an example. She was no longer able to sell milk or coffee and had sunk into a deep depression. She was put on heavy medication to cope with the tragedy. “The saddest part is relying on the food I am given,” she says. “I never, ever needed that in my life. They can pay me a million dollars, but I will never forget what I saw that night, what I went through.”

After losing his garden, Antônio Albergaria and his wife Hilda started spending a big chunk of their budget on medication. The dust caused by the mud worsened Antônio’s pulmonary emphysema. Sometimes, when his nose bleeds and he has trouble breathing, his wife takes him to a hospital in the nearby city of Ponte Nova. Not being able to walk around gardens or visit her friends transformed Hilda’s life after the disaster. “Barra Longa is gone. Weak-minded people can easily get depressed.”

Samarco’s trucks and machinery brought something new to Barra Longa: traffic jams. According to cab driver Toninho Papagaio, you could typically cross the city by car in five minutes – but now, it had become a 50-minute drive. The traffic caused mothers to forbid their children from playing in the streets. Teenagers had also lost their usual hangouts, as both the football field and sports arena were destroyed. Not even their prime spot for flirting – the town square – was the same.

Some couldn’t sleep anymore, too afraid that the Germano dam – whose name they now knew by heart – would also collapse. Sônia Lana had heard a rumor somewhere saying that if this second dam were to collapse, even the church’s tower would be swallowed by the mud and that residents would need to flee on a moment’s notice.

The small talk of Barra Longa vanished, replaced instead by conversations revolving around the mud: would life ever go back to normal? Some said that the Water Caboclo beast had been replaced by something far more frightening: Samarco.

Read the original version, in Portuguese
Maria Paola de Salvo

Maria Paola is a journalist and holds a Master’s Degree from the London School of Economics. She is a Communications Manager at Global Health Strategies.

Karla Mendes

Karla holds a Master’s degree in Investigative and Data Journalism from the University of King’s College (Canada). She currently works for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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