Brazil’s grief turns to anger as death toll from dam disaster hits 60

Updated January 29, 2019

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A protestor covered in mud performs during a demonstration in front of the headquarters of Brazilian mining company Vale in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 28, 2019. — AFP
A protestor covered in mud performs during a demonstration in front of the headquarters of Brazilian mining company Vale in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on January 28, 2019. — AFP

BRUMADINHO: Grief over the hundreds of Brazilians feared killed in last week’s 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 Monday, firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais had confirmed 60 people dead in Friday’s disaster, in which a tailings dam broke sending a torrent of sludge into the miner’s offices and the town of Brumadinho. Nearly 300 other people are unaccounted for, and officials said it was unlikely that any would be found alive.

Shares of Vale, the world’s largest iron ore and nickel producer, plummeted 21.5 per cent in Monday trading on the Sao Paulo stock exchange, erasing $16 billion in market cap.

Brazil’s top prosecutor, Raquel Do­­dge, said the company should be held strongly responsible and criminally prosecuted. Executives could also be personally held responsible, she said.

Brazil’s Vice-President Hamilton Mourao, who is acting president since Monday morning when Jair Bolso­naro underwent surgery, also said the government needs to punish those responsible for the dam disaster.

In a tweet, Brazilian Senator Re­­nan Calheiros asked Justice Minister Sergio Moro “how many people should die before federal police changes Vale management, before key evidence disappears.” Moro is a previous judge in charge of Brazil’s largest-ever corruption probe.

One of Vale’s lawyers, Sergio Bermudes, told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the executives should not leave the company and that Calheiros was trying to profit politically from the tragedy.

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said during a visit to Brumadinho on Sunday that facilities there were built to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable two weeks earlier.

The disaster at the Corrego do Feijao mine occurred 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 deadlier, as the wall of mud hit Vale’s local offices, including a crowded cafeteria, and tore through a populated area downhill.

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.”

Reaction to the disaster could threaten the plans of Brazil’s newly inaugurated president to relax restrictions on the mining industry, including proposals to open up indigenous reservations and large swathes of the Amazon jungle for mining.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2019