Despair turns to anger as Brazilians reckon with latest dam disaster

Grief over the hundreds of Brazilians feared lost in a mining disaster has quickly hardened into anger as victims’ families and politicians say iron ore miner Vale SA and regulators have learned nothing from the recent past.

By Sunday night, firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais had confirmed 58 dead after a tailings dam broke, sending a torrent of sludge into the miner’s offices and the town of Brumadinho on Friday. Some 300 others are unaccounted for, and officials said the odds were slim that any would be found alive. The disaster at the Corrego do Feijao mine came less than four years after a dam collapsed at a nearby mine run by Samarco Mineracao SA, a joint venture by Vale and BHP Billiton, killing 19 and filling a major river with toxic sludge. While the 2015 Samarco disaster dumped about five times more mining waste, Friday’s dam break was far more deadly, as the wall of mud hit Vale’s local offices, including a crowded cafeteria, and tore through a populated area downhill.

“The cafeteria was in a risky area,” Renato Simao de Oliveiras, 32, said while searching for his twin brother, a Vale employee, at an emergency response station. “Just to save money, even if it meant losing the little guy. … These businessmen, they only think about themselves.”

The board of Vale, which has raised its dividends over the last year, suspended the payments and bonuses to executives late on Sunday, as the disaster put its corporate strategy under scrutiny.

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said facilities were built to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable two weeks earlier.

“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 percent within all the standards, and that didn’t do it.”

Many wondered if the state of Minas Gerais, named for the mining industry that has shaped its landscape for centuries, should have higher standards.

“There are safe ways of mining,” said Joao Vitor Xavier, head of the mining and energy commission in the state assembly. “It’s just that it diminishes profit margins, so they prefer to do things the cheaper way – and put lives at risk.”

Blowback from the disaster could threaten the plans of newly inaugurated President Jair Bolsonaro to relax restrictions on the mining industry, including proposals to open up indigenous reservations and large swaths of the Amazon jungle for mining.

Brazil’s Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque, proposed in a late Sunday interview with Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that the law should be changed to assign responsibility in cases such as Brumadinho to the people responsible for certifying the safety of mining dams.

 

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