Toxic materials, such as arsenic, were found in the water of the Rio Doce river days after a dam burst at a mine in Brazil earlier this month, Vania Somavilla, sustainability chief at Vale (NYSE:VALE), said Friday.
Speaking at a news conference in Rio de Janeiro, Somavilla confirmed that the Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais (IGAM) had found levels of arsenic above legal limits, local mining news outlet EM reports (in Portuguese).
IGAM found levels of arsenic, lead, aluminum, chromium, nickel and cadmium many times higher than the legal maximums at various points along the river. The tests were taken between Nov. 7 and Nov. 12, as the mud from Samarco’s dam crawled downstream, killing at least seven people, with 15 still missing.
The admission comes two days after a United Nations report alleging the presence of “high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals” in the river, and criticizing both the companies and the government for their “defensive” response to the accident.
But just as its joint-venture partner BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP), which yesterday released a statement reiterating that the tailings that spilled on the Rio Doce River held nothing hazardous to human health, Vale stressed that the vast amount mud unleashed on Nov.5 only contained water, soil, iron-oxide and sand, none of which are harmful.
Biologists working along the river and coastline have been shocked by the impact of the dam burst. The mud, which has already reached the Atlantic Ocean, has killed thousands of fish and other animals in the area, but the companies have said they most likely choked to death on under the immense volume of sediment released by the dam, rather than killed by the chemical composition of the sludge.
Last week Samarco, owned by Vale and BHP, was fined 250 million reais ($65.5 million) and forced to pay for accommodations for the dispossessed.
In a joint statement Friday, the companies announced the creation of a voluntary fund to help restore the Rio Doce basin and surrounding area.
While initially sponsored by Vale and BHP, the non-profit aims to seek additional financial support from other private, public and non-government organizations. The firms did not disclose the fund’s value or what measures are planned to be put in place for the reconstruction and clean–up of the region.
The spill has been called the biggest mining disaster in Brazil’s history and has added stress on BHP and Vale, which are battling with a rout in commodities and plummeting share prices.