Brazil’s Collapsed Dam Creates Controversy

At least 121 people died and hundreds more are missing after a dam in Brazil collapsed at an iron ore mine on Jan. 25, creating debris that buried the town of Brumadinho.

The dam is located in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, a mining hub with a population numbering in the hundreds.

Two dams in over three years have collapsed in the state of São Paulo, leaving citizens in fear that Brazil’s monitoring system is deeply flawed.

In November 2015, another dam in São Paulo had burst, killing 19 people in the small village of Mariana. Both dams are associated with Vale, a Brazilian mining company. The disasters have opened up a line of questioning into the company’s practices and Minas Gerais environmental regulations.

A network of sirens and security measures are in place to warn downstream residents of incase of a failed dam collapse. According to Vale, the dam “underwent ongoing independent and external audits.” A year before the dam collapse, resident Mario Fontes reported “geo-referencing” surveyors on his property who assessed the risks of the dam breaking through an analysis of surrounding topography.

Nilo D’Avila, Greenpeace Brazil’s campaign director, said in a statement to The Guardian, “Cases like these are not accidents but environmental crimes that should be investigated, punished and repaired.”

According to CNN, Brazil arrested five people after the dam burst. Employees of Vale and consultants of TÜV SÜD, a German company that certified the dam for safety, were among those arrested.

The three Vale employees charged in the incident were involved in obtaining the mining project licensing, Bloomberg reports. In a media statement, Vale said it is fully cooperating with authorities and will be supporting the investigations.

Brazil’s National Mining Agency had classified the Brumadinho dam as low risk weeks before its collapse, according to CNN.  The certification that found the dam stable raised serious concerns about the undermined audits of other dams across Brazil.

“If this so-called ‘stable’ dam is breaking, there is no guarantee whatsoever about the security of other dams in Brazil,” said Luiz Jardim de Moraes Wanderley, a mining specialist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “It shows a major problem in the public and private monitoring and inspection of dams in the country,” he added.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro voiced his opinion on the environmental regulations, claiming they are too stringent. Shortly after taking office, he made plans to combine the country’s agriculture and environmental ministries. Following international condemnation, the plan to combine the ministries was backtracked, causing Bolsonaro to reconsider the merger.

“We intend to protect the environment without creating roadblocks to progress,” Bolsonaro said in November. Environment permits can take as long as 10 years for certain infrastructure projects and that “cannot continue,” he added.  

On Feb. 2, Bolsonaro expressed “sadness” over the deaths at Brumadinho in an official statement. “We will take all the possible steps to minimize the suffering of families and victims,” Bolsonaro said in a speech, which was later posted on Twitter.

“Many dreams were buried in the mud,” Eliu Camara de Siqueira Jr., who lost his father-in-law at the mine, said to BBC.

“Dreams of young people who were looking forward to a job with Vale, dreams of older people looking forward to retiring in the countryside, all this is now under the mud.”