A year on, Brazil valley waits for recovery from mine flood

AP Photo
AP Photo/Leo Correa

BENTO RODRIGUES, Brazil (AP) — Spreading below lush mountains, this valley is rich in mineral wealth, including veins of gold and one of the largest iron ore deposits in the planet, discoveries that turned the area into Brazil’s mining country and the birthplace of one of the world’s top producers of minerals.

But to some residents, the industry turned on them a year ago when a dam holding back a giant pond of mine waste broke open, unleashing a tsunami of mud that killed 19 people, buried entire towns and polluted hundreds of miles of rivers, streams and forest land. The 1,200 people made homeless when nearly 500 houses, clinics, schools and bridges were wrecked still live in temporary housing waiting to be moved back to new settlements.

“This place used to be a paradise. It was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” Geraldo de Oliveira said as he walked in the ravaged village of Paracatu where his home was destroyed. On a hill in the distance, a waterfall now runs clay red. “It makes your eyes water. We lost the place we loved so much,” he said.

Families whose lives were upended by the tragedy of Nov. 5, 2015, say they feel betrayed by the company behind it – Samarco, which is a joint venture of two of the world’s mining giants, Vale of Brazil and BHP Billiton of Australia. Most residents are still waiting for Samarco to pay for their lost possessions and build new towns for them.

They also are fighting the construction of an emergency dike that would flood part of what is left of the village worst hit when the mine burst at the Fundao iron mine. The company and government say the barrier is needed to prevent more mineral waste from spilling into the Doce River.

As much as people blame Samarco, they know mining has created thousands of jobs and provided millions in tax revenues, underscoring the influence that multinational corporations often have in otherwise poor, rural areas where they operate. After the collapse of the basin, local media reported that 13 federal lawmakers and 20 state representatives appointed to special committees to oversee recovery efforts had received sizeable donations from Vale, the huge Brazilian company that began in the now devastated valley 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro.

Over four decades, Samarco and Vale built clout in the area, creating thousands of jobs in the municipality of Mariana and in the neighboring towns and villages that were struck the hardest. In 2014, Samarco and Vale paid Mariana 68.9 million reals (about $26 million) in royalties – nearly twice the amount the city raised in taxes. Only a few months before Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, Samarco had been hailed as a model company by a prestigious business school and mining magazine in the region for its efforts on saving water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In Bento Rodrigues, a village in Mariana now submerged under a thick layer of mud, people described occasional handouts from Samarco for street fairs and even private parties.

“The company was well-liked here. We thought it was among the best and felt comfortable,” said Antonio Pereira Goncalves, a taxi driver who on a recent morning walked by the village and pointed out his green bathroom as the only room still standing after the mud smashed his home. “But they were distracting us so we didn’t see there was a bomb.”

Prosecutors brought manslaughter and environmental damage charges against 21 Brazilian and foreign mining executives on Oct. 20, saying the waste dam that failed was a ticking-time bomb.

“The Fundao dam showed clear signs that it could break,” said Jose Adercio Leite Sampaio, a federal prosecutor in the attorney general’s office in Minas Gerais state.

That office also has filed a $43 billion civil suit seeking social, environmental and economic compensation over the failure of the dam, likening the disaster to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Brazil’s environment ministry, meanwhile, has levied seven fines totaling 292.8 million reals (about $94 million) over the disaster and the government of Minas Gerais has imposed fines of 112 million reals ($36 million). Samarco has not paid anything while it contests the amounts.

In addition to worrying about waste still in the basin being washed into the river during the rainy season, officials also fear that iron ore tailings stacked along dozens of miles of rivers in the valley could end up in the water and add to the killing of plants and fish. They contend Samarco hasn’t taken appropriate actions to restore the area.

Maury de Souza Jr., the company’s chief officer for sustainable projects, says Samarco has spent 1 billion reals (about $320 million) to reforest river banks, to build dikes for containing mine waste and pay benefits for people affected by the disaster – it pays the minimum wage for one household member and an additional sum for every dependent.

Owing billions to bondholders, Samarco has missed recent interest payments and is considering restructuring its debt. BHP Billiton and Vale were hoping Samarco would restart operations later this year but the company has not gotten the required licenses. Meanwhile, BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, said the disaster cost it $2.2 billion for the fiscal year ended June 30 in extraordinary expenses related to the dam failure. However, a recent rebound in iron ore prices may offset damages for the giant companies, which have mines around the world. On Thursday, Vale reported an increase in its third quarter earnings driven by the price rise.

Since Samarco suspended work in the area, the Mariana municipality has seen its revenues drop by nearly a half.

People who lost their homes in the wrecked villages of Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu are living all across the cobbled-stone city of Mariana waiting to be relocated to new rural villages. Many feel like prisoners in their temporary city apartments, telling of former homes in the countryside where children could walk freely in the pepper fields and see farm animals.

Paracatu looks ransacked. The entire village is brushed the color of clay. A church has a brown tidemark halfway up its towers. Desks on the second story of an elementary school are buried in mud. Barbie dolls, stuffed animals and comic books are scattered all over as if a tornado had just raged through.

Maria do Carmo Pereira Ramos wept on a recent evening as she told that because of the destruction, she refuses to go back to Paracatu, where she was born and raised. She read a poem and sang a song about the suffering of the people after the dam burst.

“Our history was taken along with the mud,” she read. “Paracatu and Bento Rodrigues will never be what they were.”

Marinalva dos Santos Salgado remembers being at a bus stop near her home when she saw the giant wave of mud approaching and raced back home to get her family. She says the images of the day are stuck in her head. She suffers from anxiety and takes sleeping pills to get rest at night and stop thinking of her destroyed property and of the 19 people who died.

“Sometimes I dream that we saved everyone. Sometimes I dream that everyone died,” she said. “I have this dream where I don’t know who is dead and who is alive.”

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