Dam collapse – chronicle of disaster foretold: Balance of power

The horrific collapse of a dam owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale – with the death toll likely to reach the hundreds and widespread environmental damage – highlights a mix of failed government oversight and laws that favor mining interests over public safety. “They thought it was easier to sink the bill” he says.

Joao Vitor Xavier, a legislator in mineral-rich Minas Gerais state, had been warning of such a calamity since late 2015, when another so-called upstream dam co-owned by Vale failed, killing 19 people.

While authorities vowed action at the time, Xavier’s proposed state law banning upstream dams withered in the legislature. Mining companies didn’t join the debate. “They thought it was easier to sink the bill” he says.

Other proposed legislation – at both state and national levels – failed. Instead of hiring more dam inspectors, the government slashed budgets. In Minas Gerais, four federal inspectors police more than 400 dams.

Chief Executive Officer Fabio Schvartsman says Vale will close upstream dams. And unlike some prior leaders who shirked disaster scenes, new President Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, was at the site of the tragedy within 24 hours.

But Xavier remains haunted by his past warnings. For him, neither catastrophe had to happen.

(By Michael Smith and Rosalind Mathieson)

Click here for complete coverage of the dam burst at Vale's Córrego do Feijão mine