Mud, toxic substances, and death. Two dams have collapsed in Brazil

The dam burst of 5 November is one of the worst mining disasters in Brazil’s history, and could have irreparably contaminated the area.

11 people have died, 12 are missing, 500 are displaced, and incalculable environmental damages have been caused. These are the figures of the accident in which two dams collapsed in an iron mine owned by the mining society Samarco, south-eastern Brazil.


Aerial view of the damages in the village of Bento Rodrigues (Christophe Simon/AFP)


On 5 November, the village of Bento Rodrigues a Mariana, in the region of Minas Gerais, has been covered with mud, slime, and toxic waste and residuals, after two dams built to contain wastewater have collapsed.


Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff compared the accident to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the oil rig owned by the British Petroleum (BP).

Over 250,000 people currently do not have access to drinking water, whilst waterways are coloured in a disquieting orange.


The dam burst caused the spill of over 50 million cubic metres of mud and residual liquids of the mine, containing highly toxic substances such as mercury. The mining company Samarco agreed to pay 260 million dollars.

The company, co-owned by the mining giants Vale and BHP Billiton, has repeatedly denied the toxicity of mud and committed to carrying out all possible efforts to prioritize the needs of people affected.


“It’s already clear wildlife is being killed by this mud,” said Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. “To say the mud is not a health risk is overly simplistic.”


Brazilian authorities consider the sum not to be enough to cover the huge damages on the environment and people. “This is only a first instalment,” said state prosecutor Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto.


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Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff flying over the area of the disaster (Roberto Stuckert Filho/Brazilian Presidency/Reuters)


The causes and the environmental consequences of the accident are still not clear. According to scientists, mud – which could contain chemicals used to reduce iron impurities – can alter waterways, reduce oxygen levels in water, and decrease fertility in agricultural lands.


This disaster is only the last in the area of Doce river, one of the most important connections between the state of Minas Gerais and the Atlantic Ocean. The area, crossing the thick rainforest, has always been strongly exploited, mainly for gold and iron, since the Portuguese colonisation.


Biologists now fear that toxic substances spilled into the river could also contaminate the coast. The mouth of the Doce river is a nesting place of sea turtles, which are threatened with extinction and are particularly sensitive to water chemical changes.


A rescuer with a horse trapped in the mud (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)


All animal species in the area, both aquatic and terrestrial, are dying by asphyxiation. In order to protect aquatic life the so called Operation Noah’s Ark has been launched, aimed to prevent fish species living in the river from extinction.

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