Latest on the Brumadinho dam collapse: A trail of shocking decisions

6/2/19 - Julia Mello Neiva, Senior Brazil Researcher at BHRRC

It has been just over a week since Vale’s tailings dam in Brumadinho collapsed killing at least 140 people. There are still nearly 200 missing.

The tragedy is still very much alive with Fundação Fiocruz (a federal agency that advises Ministry of Health) warning of outbreaks of dengue, yellow fever and other diseases. The toxic sludge continues to threaten indigenous villages, infiltrating vital water sources.

In the last 10 days, there has been a flow of worrying details released in Brazilian and national press shining a light on how a disaster of this scale could happen, and so soon after the Samarco dam collapse in 2015 - a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton.

  • The sirens designed to warn nearby communities and workers of a problem did not sound because they were “engulfed” by mud. This left locals scrambling to warn each other by phone. One woman interviewed by the Guardian said she got a breathless voice message from her landlady saying “The dam has burst. Get out of there quick, in the name of Jesus!”.
  • According to Vale's own reports, after the 2015 dam collapse, the company reduced health and safety expenses by 44%. Vale also enjoyed outstanding profits in 2017 awarding about $8 million in bonuses to its 6 directors.
  • The Guardian reported that around July last year, repairs were carried out after the dam leaked water near its base. One worker was so worried about the leak he planned to leave his job. Vale has denied there was a leak.
  • The dam had recently been licensed in a so-called "fast track" process.
  • Vale chose Gerd Peter Poppinga, one of the directors currently under criminal investigation for the death of 19 people in the 2015 disaster, to meet with the government to discuss the response to the Brumadinho collapse. The Federal Prosecutor's Office claims that Poppinga was one of the directors who was warned of faults with the Samarco dam ahead of its collapse.

On January 29th, courts decided that upstream tailings dams, like Samarco and Brumadinho, should be banned across Brazil. This was in response to a request from the Prosecutor’s Office filed 2 years ago, after the Samarco dam collapse. In the petition sat a list of tailings dams being licensed; Brumadinho was on there. On the same day, Vale announced it would decommission all its upstream tailings dams. It’s not clear whether Vale was motivated by this court decision or if did this on its own initiative.

This latest tragedy has also resurfaced the Samarco collapse in the public eye. The New Statesman wrote that the 2015 dam disaster should have been a wake-up call to the world, but its survivors already feel overlooked by governments and big business”. Many human rights groups, academics, and specialists claim that if there had been a proper reparation process for affected communities after the 2015 collapse, with the companies and state held accountable, Brumadinho could have been avoided.

This latest disaster brings to light the failures of the mining system. Both the State and companies have failed to prevent this disaster from happening again.

Brazil has about 740 tailings dams. More than 300 of them have not been classified in relation to their risk of rupture and potential damage. There are 13 dams with a medium risk of rupture and high potential damage, which is how Brumadinho was classified. Ultimately, the clock could already be ticking on Brazil’s next dam disaster. 

Click here for the latest on the Brumadinho dam collapse.