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Brazil dam burst: Death toll from state’s ‘worst environmental disaster’ to rise, local mayor says

November 9, 2015
Emergency Management

6921842-3x2-460x307Rescue teams have struggled to reach villages devastated by a massive mudflow after two dams burst at a major Brazilian mine that is co-owned by BHP Billiton, wreaking havoc more than 80 kilometres downstream and prompting officials to warn of a higher death toll.

Up to 10 residents of the nearest village remain missing, along with 13 workers from the mine, but only one death has been confirmed in what the governor of mineral-rich Minas Gerais described as the state’s worst environmental disaster.

“The death toll will rise for sure … The number of missing will rise because we’re talking to the residents of Bento [Rodrigues] and some people still aren’t accounted for,” said Duarte Junior, mayor of the nearby city of Mariana.

“What we’re seeing is maybe three to six people, at the most 10 people, who are missing from Bento.”

City officials released a partial list of missing people, including three children, aged four to seven, and a 60-year-old woman from the village, which was swamped by mudslides within a half hour of public warnings.

The mine’s operator, Samarco, is co-owned by the world’s largest mining company BHP Billiton and the biggest iron ore miner Vale SA. Clean-up and repairs along miles of flooded river could cost the companies a fortune.

A state public prosecutor based in Mariana said on Saturday he would seek 500,000 Brazilian reais ($188,224) in personal damages for each of about 200 families most affected by the dam burst.

While it is still unclear what caused the collapses, Samarco said on Saturday that workers were doing normal scheduled work on one of the dams to increase its size when it burst, sweeping them away in the flood.

Walls of water filled with mining waste cascaded downhill when the dams burst on Thursday, engulfing the village of Bento Rodrigues and its 600 residents in a sea of mud while also flooding others far removed from the open-pit mine.

“They didn’t tell us the mud would come through with such force,” said Losangeles Freitas, resident of Barra Longa, a town nearly 80 kilometres downstream flooded by the 60 million cubic meters of waste water and mud.

“We lost everything. It moved so fast.”

Her neighbour Bernardo Trinidade, a 58-year-old plumber, said authorities warned that the river behind his house would swell by a metre or two. But the waters rose more than 10 metres, he said, sweeping into his home at 3:00am local time — nearly half a day after the dam broke.

“We took what we could and ran upstairs,” said Mr Trinidade.

“We were told it wouldn’t be so bad.”

Half a dozen jeeps with water and emergency supplies rolled through Barra Longa on their way to Gesteira, one of several remote villages along the river that rescuers had not yet reached.

As local officials struggled to reach isolated communities, politicians in the capital Brasilia demanded answers from mining executives at BHP Billiton and Vale, one of Brazil’s biggest corporations.

“This accident will bring consequences for those companies,” said senator Delcidio Amaral, a leader of the governing coalition.

“Without a doubt, the executives of these companies will be brought before Congress … they have to be held accountable.”

Mr Amaral said the disaster would shape the debate over Brazil’s mining code, drawing attention to the need for new safety and environmental regulations that have been tied up in Congress for years.

Samarco’s chief executive said the mine’s environmental licenses were up to date and the dams had been inspected in July. He said a tremor in the vicinity of the mine may have caused the dams to burst, but that it was too early to establish the exact cause.

Samarco said it had set no date to restart the mine, which produces about 30 million tonnes of iron ore annually. Output is shipped to Brazil’s coast and converted into pellets for export to steel mills.

The cleanup bill and potential environmental lawsuits could be more costly than the loss of output. BHP Billiton and Vale already face iron ore prices at their lowest in a decade.

Published by ABC News 8th November 2015