Neglect led to the Mariana tragedy

samarco tragedy dam "Samarco wanted to kill us, but Jesus saved us."
This text was originally published by Brio, in Portuguese. It was translated by Gustavo Ribeiro and edited by Christine Bootes

Chapter 5 – A Tragedy In Many Acts

The days off given by Samarco weren’t enough for Renato, the truck driver at the dam, to forget what he had witnessed on November 5. He was still recovering from the funeral of a coworker of his who wasn’t as lucky to make it out alive. In the company Renato worked for, there were seven casualties – but Renato was skeptical of the official data given by Samarco and the authorities.

One of his fellow drivers was under psychological treatment. He was supposed to be in the lower part of the dam that November 5, but a last-minute change resulted in the company sending another worker in his place – a 41-year-old man who died in the collapse, leaving behind a devastated family. The surviving driver, who escaped death by chance, was struggling with guilt. And with all of these thoughts circling around in his head, Renato had to put on his boots and helmet and start work again. He wanted desperately to leave these memories behind him, but his uniform was a constant reminder of the tragedy.

Back at the dam, workers were greeted by a crisis committee formed by safety engineers and experts. “The company insists that the collapse was just bad luck, and that the safety of the premises is assured,” said a spokesperson for Samarco. The employees raise their eyebrows and look at each other. “We have now installed several sensors capable of detecting any signs of hazard,” the man continued, while Renato and his coworkers watched the seminar on safety and escape routes. Signs indicating emergency exists were installed, but Renato has to wonder: why wasn’t this done before?

After the seminar, the time came to go to the site of the dam collapse. Renato has no excuse to avoid going, as he found out that his new job will be to transport rocks to reinforce the dike in the Germano dam. Nobody wanted to return to the disaster, but representatives from Samarco reassured them that the new sensors would sound the moment something was out of order, and instructed them to review their chart on emergency actions.

Although the men say that the dam is being monitored, Renato has not seen a single one at the site of the collapse – only low-level employees are sent. While he protested being sent down there, he was also in a precarious situation because he didn’t want to risk losing his job. Like so many others, he was torn between his outrage about the disaster, and his dependency on the salary.

Renato had doubts about what Samarco had told its employees. It had been awhile since he first began to have second thoughts about the safety of Fundão and Germano, despite their good reputation within the mining business. After the collapse, not even high-profile employees of Samarco felt that safety was assured. One had even warned his friends to stay far from the dam, just in case.

Fear became a reality, as Germano – the dam where Renato transported rocks – still threatened to collapse. And if it were to do so, the mud would follow the same path as the residue of Fundão, further increasing the devastation to the region.

On November 30, local authorities – and Samarco – called for the preventive evacuation of the Camargos district. The same could have been done in Barra Longa, where 155 houses were destroyed in twelve hours.

A task force was created to investigate the causes of the accident. Its purpose was to determine whether or not the collapse was the result of negligence, and moreover, to punish whoever was responsible for the disaster. State Prosecutor Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto was appointed as the task force coordinator – the same prosecutor who had signed the report stipulating conditions for the renewal of Samarco’s license for the Fundão dam, and the same who would later refrain from voting in the Environmental Council. “The State Prosecution Office chose to abstain because we had several doubts [about the safety of the enterprise]. In those cases, we don’t vote. We were extremely insecure about the safety issues,” he explained.

The task force determined that the disaster was the result of negligence. To compile this story, we accessed documents revealing numerous irregularities in the license-concession proceedings that have occurred since the Fundão dam’s concession in 2007.

This particular dam was a priority of Samarco’s, since the Germano dam was supposed to cease activity in 2009. It was necessary to have another structure in place for all of the residue. Three dikes would form the new dam: one to contain the solid and sandy residues, leaving the remaining two for mud.

samarco dam tragedy

Bento Rodrigues, Minas Gerais

Here, we’ll explain the technicalities behind the process:

Early in 2007, Samarco kicked off the procedure to acquire an environmental license for the construction of Fundão. The process consisted of three progressive stages: a provisional license, an installation license, and an operating license. Analyzing what had happened with each step along the way, the State Prosecution Office identified several infractions during both the provisional and installation license phases.

The provisional license was issued on February 22, 2007, in a curious manner. Then-Deputy-Secretary for the Environment in Minas Gerais, Shelley de Souza Carneiro, gave the company a green light for the project without first submitting it to the Environmental Council (the institution for which he served as the Secretary-Executive), as was protocol. His decision was instead submitted to the council on April 26, and was confirmed after it received a positive recommendation from the State Environmental Foundation.

The authorization for the dam’s construction bares its conditions, although, improvements were necessary to be made before the next stage of the process. Fundão was considered a high-risk dam, and adherence to the safety recommendations was supposed to be verified through documents and reports presented by Samarco.

One of the main requests is a complete project of the dam, the one presenting the structure’s technical and operational details – including the types of materials that would be contained in the dam, geological studies, and information about the local environment.

The State Environmental Foundation, though, breached protocol when it didn’t request such studies, and instead allowed Samarco to continue its project after having presented only basic data, saying that the final report had not yet been concluded. But the Foundation considered this preliminary report sufficient, and allowed the project to continue. At this point, the entire process could have been stopped – especially since Samarco’s project had been altered considerably by this point. Instead of three dikes, the new document allowed for only two – one for the solid residue, and one for mud. This development meant cutting the reservoirs reserved for the mud down by half.

This downsize should have required new geological studies. In April 2007, a report conducted by a consulting firm hired by Samarco said that roughly five months were needed to conclude these studies and that Samarco promised to present authorities with them as soon as they were ready. But prosecutors never found those documents. This is a serious omission, and according to prosecutors, the entire process at this stage should have reverted back to square one.

There was yet another problem. Fundão was too close to a mine belonging to Vale, which could cause stability issues. The mining company presented a report acknowledging this risk, stating that the dam and the mine could compromise one another, but only if the reservoir’s levels reached 873 meters above sea-level. And this would only happen during the third year of operations. It was thought that by then, Samarco and Vale could find a solution for the structure. This argument convinced the State Environmental Foundation, but to this day, no project presenting that solution is contained in the state’s files.

Once the license was issued, Samarco lost no time. It filed a request to begin installing the dam just 15 days later. Once again, Samarco presented a new project that was different from the previous ones. With no detailed studies on geological conditions, the company worked under the premise that 70% of the residues would be sand, making just the remaining 30% mud.

Despite those problems, the State Environmental Foundation once again decided in favor of Samarco. It posed a few conditions for the next steps – just as it had done before. And just a month later the installation license was issued. And once again, signed only by Deputy-Secretary Shelley de Souza Carneiro.

Nothing in the process was done the books. Between the provisional license stage and the issuing of the installation license, only two months went by. And this is how Samarco received the green light to start construction – in record-time, without the environmental authorities knowing its complete project, and with no studies to assure new structure’s safety.

The installation license imposed new demands on Samarco. To get the operational license, which would be to allow the structure to actually function, the company needed to present an operational manual for the dam system. This was to include proceedings regarding maintenance and monitoring, as well as a plan for emergency issues. The State Environmental Foundation said that Samarco met the demand – but had reduced the necessary content, asking only for the company to “present the operational manual of the dam system” without specifications. And, once again, the Environmental Council wasn’t contacted. Despite its being listed in the state’s system for licensing, the presented manual is not complete.

Samarco was also supposed to present an “as-built report,” a document explaining how the project was erected. The State Environmental Foundation states that the company did so – but, as they did with so many other documents, Samarco just presented a simplified version drafted before the dam’s completion and based on an inspection conducted on April 16, 2008. The final document wasn’t found by prosecutors – neither for the 2008 process nor for the license renewal in 2013.

Prosecutors identified yet another irregularity: Samarco should have completed a safety inspection after the dam was ready for operation, but before operations began. But the State Environmental Foundation gave the company 60 days after the start of operations, an obvious infraction of what the Environmental Council had established.

On August 29, 2008, state authorities issued a report giving a favorable evaluation of the proceedings. It stated that all requirements were met. The State Prosecution Office now says exactly the opposite.

Errors were also facilitated due to state officials’ lack of understanding new environmental laws. When Samarco requested the authorization to deforest parts of a preservation area, where the dam was to be built, authorities analyzed it without paying attention to global safety issues and only looked at issues related to vegetation suppression. This mistake would be repeated in 2013 when the license was renewed – and new demands were presented: geotechnical monitoring was to be done least once a year, as well as the development of a contingency plan in case of risk or accidents, especially concerning Bento Rodrigues. Samarco had between six months and a year to comply.

The Dam Shouldn’t Have Been Built There

Sources told the investigators that they couldn’t understand how two companies were authorized to store their residues so close to one another. One dam would inevitably interfere with the other, which had already been noticed in 2007 when the first licenses were issued. The risk of erosion was flagrant, as pointed out in 2013 by the Prístino Institute. Prosecutors didn’t doubt that this was one of the main causes for the disaster.

Also under investigation, the budget cuts promoted by Samarco led to the removal of the sensors three months prior to the accident. If the sensors had been working on November 5, alarms would have gone off and an emergency plan could have been set into motion. Residents of Bento Rodrigues would have been able to save lives and personal possessions.

It is suspected that Samarco was dealing with an amount of residue greater than it was allowed to. A reason to think so is the fact that Vale was storing 15% of its residues in Samarco’s dams (5% of the volume at Fundão), as the company acknowledged in a statement. According to Vale, this procedure was part of a 1989 contract between the two mining companies that did not have a termination date. The reality of 1989 is nothing like today’s, though, considering the increase in production: between 2000 and 2014 it more than doubled, forcing the construction of two new dams.

Alberto Fonseca, an environmental and mineral researcher at the Federal University of Ouro Preto, drew from this incident that the licensing bureaucracy in Brazil was not adequate and state authorities didn’t have the means to proper monitor if companies are functioning lawfully. “It is an institutional theater: state authorities pretend to be working and companies pretend to follow their demands.”

He said that self-monitoring in companies, which happened all over the world, was an unavoidable reality due to the lack of state resources. The problem, though, lied in impunity. Since reprimands could be easily challenged by companies in court, nothing was forcing them to play by the rules. “There is no mine in Brazil fully respecting our control mechanisms. Both sides are guilty of the current state of things: companies have no regard for the law and state officials do nothing about it,” Fonseca pointed out. It was a vicious cycle. State institutions had no means to fully implement the law, thus becoming accomplices to the companies’ negligence.

We Don’t Want Mud

Above all, people affected by the disaster feared impunity of those responsible for their misfortune. They asked themselves why nothing was done to prevent Samarco from renewing its license for a dam, posing so many risks.

On December 15, the United Nations declared that Samarco was not the only entity to be held accountable. The Brazilian authorities were responsible, too. The State Prosecution Office could have stopped the licensing process or investigated the safety of the dam.

State prosecutor Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto defended his institution by stating that it was impossible to follow every process in detail. “Environmental authorities just say ‘ok’ to everything. When something like that happens we see how fragile the process is,” he says. A task force of seven federal prosecutors, which will determine the responsible parties, has been created.

On January 13, the Federal Police indicted Samarco (seven members of its board of executives including CEO Ricardo Vescovi), Vale, and VogBR, the consulting firm that issued a report assuring the stability and safety of the collapsed dam. However, some feared that only the technicians who signed the reports would face punishment, whereas nothing would happen to the officials and executives who conducted the process. Environmental officials who spoke with us explained that the auditors who monitored different projects have so many to supervise that it is nearly impossible to conduct a thorough investigation of each one. Furthermore, to the naked eye, structural problems are hard to see.

But a dam doesn’t collapse overnight. In fact, it wouldn’t collapse at all if negligence didn’t allow it to. Samarco had the technology to identify abnormalities in the dam’s structure. An important question arises: did Samarco hide the problems indicated by their monitoring equipment, or did they simply ignore them?

The company has ignored interview requests and did not offer explanations for the irregularities listed in this story.

Despite this being the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history – and the world’s worst in the last 100 years – there are no signs that any effort has been made to avoid a second dam collapse. Ironically, just days after the tragedy, the state legislators of Minas Gerais approved laws to speed up licensing procedures, making the process even more fragile and prone to error.

In the first four months after the dam collapse, the city of Mariana lost one-third of its monthly revenues. But in spite of this, city officials tiptoed around their discussion of Samarco’s responsibility. The impacts of a decision to shut down their operations would cause a social crisis in the city.

Bento Rodrigues will not be rebuilt. Samarco has accepted to build a new village to serve as a new home to the 1,000 residents, but the location has yet to be determined. In Barra Longa, Mayor Fernando Magalhães still hopes that the company will hold its promise of building a town even more beautiful than the original one. For now, mud still covers the village.

Read the original version, in Portuguese
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.

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.

Our content is protected by copyright. Want to republish The Brazilian Report? Email us at