Sandra Quintão spent New Year’s Eve in a ghost town, surrounded by the remnants of her old life. The 44-year-old was a lifelong resident of Bento Rodrigues, a 600-person mining town in southern Brazil when her whole world became covered in mud. Bento Rodrigues stood at the edge of a dam filled with 1.9 billion cubic feet of mineral waste. In November 2015 the dam burst, sending a tidal wave of iron ore refuse that blanketed the region in the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.
Quintã was working in the restaurant she owned, cleaning up after the late-lunch crowd when a neighbor zoomed toward her on a motorcycle, warning that the dam had collapsed and urging everyone to run. Quintão thought of sprinting to her house to gather her documents, but when she saw the mud surging towards her she knew she wouldn’t have enough time. She grabbed her three-year-old daughter and climbed a water tower, the highest point in town, just in time to see the mud engulf her house. Within ten minutes the village was destroyed.
One year later, the surviving residents of Bento gathered for an improvised barbeque amongst the ruins to celebrate the start of a new year. “We can’t let go of Bento,” said Quintão.
The sludge killed 19 people, including a 7-year-old boy, and rendered another 700 homeless. The waste flowed down the River Doce, killing wildlife along the way, until it reached the Atlantic Ocean nearly 400 miles from the dam. The disaster left a red stain on the region that was visible from space. Authorities say the recovery is expected to take more than ten years.
The mine was operated by Brazilian mining company Samarco to make iron ore pellets used in steelmaking. The company is jointly owned by Vale, the world’s largest iron ore miner with a market cap of $128 billion, and Australia’s BHP Billiton, with a market cap of $129 billion. In March the Samarco agreed to a $5.6 billion settlement with the government to cover damages from the spill. The company has also paid $300 million in compensation and indemnities and has rented homes for residents like Quintão, whose houses were destroyed, while it builds them new accommodations six miles away from the town.
The dam was the largest structure of its kind to ever burst. The earth-filled embankment known as a tailing dam has become an increasingly popular method of storing mineral waste. The Syncrude Mildred Lake tailings dam in Canada and the American Smelting and Refining Company’s Missions Mine in Tucson, for example, are some of the largest earth structures in the world. But engineers have raised alarm bells about the accident-prone structures for years.
A BHP and Vale-commissioned study on the cause of the rupture found that changes to the dam’s design allowed water to seep in, essentially liquefying the dam’s barriers.
Those left to clean up the mess are in a race against time to get the waste under control before the region’s rainy season, which stretches from December through February, spreads the waste even further. In the aftermath of the rupture, Samarco created a series of dikes to contain the waste and keep it from spreading. Still, 60 percent of the mining waste that erupted from the dam has yet to be drained, according to Brazil’s environmental protection agency, IBAMA. The agency removed 21,000 cubic feet of waste that was putrefying the area around Bento Rodrigues, the only to see half of it return after heavy rain.
“The scale of the tragedy makes the recovery very complex,” said Marcelo Belisário, who led IBAMA’s recovery efforts in the state of Minas, where the accident occurred. “It is very stressful. We are pushing the company in the restoration efforts, but we also feel society’s pressure to act quickly and find a feasible pathway to control the tragedy,” he said.
Samarco, which employed 3,000 people at the height of its operations, is eager to resume mining as quickly as possible. The accident will cost the company $1 billion in lost revenue in 2017, the equivalent of 1 percent of the entire state’s GDP, according to the company. In October, the company missed payments to bondholders raising questions about its viability if operations take too long to restart. Samarco has proposed a new system to contain mining waste—an old, confined pit protected by a 33-foot dike, capable of holding two years worth of residue, while the company looks for a more permanent solution.
“This has been a period of intense learning for Samarco, which recognizes it has caused grave social, environmental and economic impacts. After paralyzing operations for one year, we need to restart operations to honor the commitments we took on,” the company’s president, Roberto Carvalho, said in a recent statement.
The accident dealt an economic blow to the area. Tax revenues in the Mariana municipality, where Bento Rodrigues is located, averaged just $230,000 per month in the first half of 2016, compared with $2 million per month in 2013, according to the municipal government. Today, 25 percent of residents are unemployed.
“The company is responsible for the tragedy. It cannot in any way be seen as a victim,” Mariana Mayor Duarte Júnior told Vice. “But we need to understand that the company’s return will reignite our economy, and allow public funds to maintain essential services. Mining is still a very important part of our municipality.”
Still, some residents like Quintão, who lost everything in the accident, are calling for a new, more responsible company to take over operations.
“For the people of Mariana, Samarco is everything. They don’t care if they killed a dozen people.” said Quintão, who now works at a market selling pastries and bringing in one third of what she used to make at the restaurant per month. “The company said they would keep us safe. I trusted Samarco. The employees were patrons of the restaurant, I really believed them.”
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