The massive breach in the Samarco mine tailings pond has now been described by Brazil’s environment minister as “the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history”. When the earthen dam was breached November 5, it unleashed about 50 million cubic metres of water mixed with mine wastes. The resulting mud flow devastated a small town. The immediate death toll was eight confirmed dead and 20 more missing and presumed dead.
Emergency workers found a human arm 55 miles from the destroyed town on Thursday.
The toxic sludge made its way down the Rio Doce, poisoning the aquatic life and gradually moving into the ocean. The small town at the mouth of the river is dependent on tourism and environment to make its living. Now they are hoping for the small mercy of the sludge not covering the beaches where the endangered leatherback turtles lay their eggs. Those beaches are the only ones in Brazil where the leatherbacks return.
The nightmare has not played itself out yet. It has been disclosed that two more dams are in imminent danger of collapsing, releasing even more sludge onto the town site and river.
The company in charge of the Samarco mine, Imperial Metals Corp., aka BHP Billiton, has agreed to pay damages of just under USD 300 million as well as a fine, but critics say that that amount comes nowhere near compensating people for the loss of their relatives, their homes, their livelihoods and their environment.
Mines create large amounts of waste material and polluted water in the process. The cheapest way for mine operators to deal with the pulverized rock and contaminated water is to impound it in earthen dams until the tailings(solids) settle out. Unfortunately the dams may be too weak to hold back the water and sludge. The sludge is often acidic as well as high in heavy metals, burning the flesh that it touches and poisoning both the environment and the people in it. Tailings from mines, whether stacked in piles or behind dams in ponds, fail too often. In the past five years there have been 15 major failures around the world. Some result in loss of life. All result in damage to the environment.