At approximately 4:20 p.m. on Thursday in south-eastern Brazil, a pair of dams burst and flooded nearby towns. The dams had been tasked with holding back waste water from one of Brazil’s iron ore mines. The flood caused untold devastation, and mudslides left the remote region’s officials desperately attempting to gain access to and assess casualties. Thus far, it is feared that the dam burst has possibly claimed the lives of at least 15 people.
The lateness of the hour at which the dams burst meant that when night fell just three hours later, further complications arose against rescue efforts. However, over 500 persons have been reported as being rescued by firefighters. The torrent of possible toxin-laden mud has also hampered search and rescue as in some patches, the still-wet mud is acting in a manner similar to quicksand. State fire official Vinicius Teixeira stated that in some areas the mud had reached roof level and many vehicles had been swept away.
“Whoever steps on it runs a great risk of sinking and drowning in this mud. There is a risk of bodies not being found.”
The thunderous clap that came when the dams burst was the only indication that there was something horribly wrong in the town of Bento Rodrigues — which surrounds the Samarco iron ore in Brazil. The clay red mud, possibly toxin-filled because of its iron ore source, swept through the village after the dams burst with the vicious and destructive power of lava, sweeping away or claiming by burial everything in its path.
The surrounding village was home to approximately 600 people and reports are coming in that only about 100 of the residents are currently accounted for. Those who heard or saw the mudslides begin did their best to warn their neighbors as they scrambled for safety from the cascading waters. Other low lying villages have also been affected by the sea of mud and many have been evacuated in an attempt to prevent lives being lost.
A gym in the city of Mariana now houses these survivors as donations come pouring in to aid them in getting essential items. Authorities are reluctant to give an actual figure regarding the amount of lives that has been lost, as they say it is still too early. Accounts of two persons dead as a result of the dams bursting was shifted down to one initially. One gym occupant, Antonio Santos, had been home in Bento Rodrigues when the dams broke and the construction worker says that he personally saw four persons swept away by the roaring waters — two of them were children.
“I heard screaming and saw the water coming fast, about 15 to 20 meters high (49-66 feet). Within 10 minutes the whole lower part of the village was destroyed, about 80 percent of it.
Brazilian company Vale SA and Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton Ltd, two of the largest mining companies in the world, own the iron mine that was responsible for the collection of waste water unleashed when the dams burst. The company has not issued an official reason as to what may have been responsible for the dam breaking, but according to Reuters, Samarco’s chief executive officer advised that there had been several tremors in the vicinity of the mine that could have caused the dams to burst. However, John Bellini, spokesman for the U.S. Geological Survey, said their agency monitors seismic activity worldwide and no earthquakes had been reported in the region as of Thursday. He did go on to clarify that usually only data that registers a quake of a magnitude greater than 4.3 is recorded by the company, but also stressed that in order to damage a well-constructed dam, a quake would have to be higher than 4.5 magnitude.
The flooding that came after the dams burst is a true environmental tragedy and Governor Fernando Pimentel has said that the accident is the “biggest natural disaster in the history of our state.” In addition to people and homes, wildlife is also sure to suffer. The state prosecutor will be advocating to have Samarco’s environmental license to operate in the region suspended, this he says is due to the fact that the company had no warning measures in place in case of such a disaster. If an alarm had sounded perhaps more persons would have become aware of the impending mudslides and been able to get to safety. At least 13 of Samarco’s own employees have been reported missing as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that owning company BHP usually prides itself on high safety standards and this accident is a rare event in the company’s lifetime.
The company is attempting to assuage fears that the mixture of water and residue from mining operations that the dam released when it burst contains any toxin that could result in the contamination of the land and rivers. Samarco officials have also assured the mayor that the mining company would pay for all damages caused.
[Photo Courtesy of YouTube Video screencap]