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Death toll from Brazilian dam collapse rises to 58

28 January 2019

On January 25 a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais province, triggering a deadly mudslide that two days later had a confirmed death toll of 58. Just over 300 people were still missing, with the list of those unaccounted for being constantly updated. Most of the missing are presumed dead, officials said.

Tailings lake - Image: Shutterstock
Tailings lake - Image: Shutterstock

The collapsed dam at Vale SA’s Corrego do Feijao mine buried mining facilities and nearby homes in Brumadinho, as well as infrastructure downriver from the dam. A second dam at the mining complex thought to be at risk after the first dam’s collapse was later declared safe by Brazilian authorities.

Vale said 305 employees, contractors and residents were still missing. Some 192 people have been rescued alive. The dam break caused a sea of muddy sludge to bury the site's cafeteria where workers were eating lunch, before engulfing nearby houses, vehicles and roads.

Access to the areas is difficult - in some places, the mud is up to 15m deep. Search teams have been using helicopters and earth-moving machinery. A bus that was carrying employees has been found but rescuers have yet to reach a train that could contain survivors or more bodies.

"After 48 hours of work, the chance of finding [someone] alive is very low," Col Eduardo Angelo, who is leading the search operation, told relatives of the missing. "But we're working with the possibility that we'll find people alive."

After announcing the latest number of confirmed dead, state civil defence agency spokesman Flavio Godinho told reporters he expected the death toll to continue rising.

The cause of the dam burst remained unclear. Recent inspections did not indicate any problems, according to the German firm that conducted the inspection.

Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of Brumadinho, said Vale was “careless and incompetent,” and blamed the mining company for the tragedy and the state of Minas Gerais for poor oversight.

Vale Chief Executive Officer Fabio Schvartsman said in a television interview the disaster happened even after the company followed experts’ safety recommendations.

“I’m not a mining technician. I followed the technicians’ advice and you see what happened. It didn’t work,” Schvartsman said. “We are 100% within all the standards, and that didn’t do it.”

The CEO promised “to go above and beyond any national or international standards. ... We will create a cushion of safety far superior to what we have today to guarantee this never happens again.”

Vale’s board of directors suspended its planned shareholder dividends, share buybacks and executive bonuses in light of the disaster, according to a securities filing on January 27.
The board also created independent committees to investigate the causes of the dam burst and to monitor relief efforts.

In 2015, a tailings dam collapsed at an iron ore mine belonging to Samarco Mineracao SA, a Vale joint venture with BHP Group, less than 100 km to the east. The resulting torrent of toxic mud killed 19 people, buried a small village and contaminated a major river in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster on record.

The Brazilian government ordered Vale to halt operations at the Corrego do Feijao mining complex. On January 27, courts nearly doubled to 11 billion reais ($3 billion) the amount of Vale assets frozen in anticipation of damages and fines.

Federal prosecutor Jose Adercio Sampaio told Reuters that state and federal authorities had failed to apply more stringent regulation to the hundreds of tailings dams around the country.

Schvartsman said all of Vale’s tailings dams were checked after the 2015 disaster and periodic reviews carried out.

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