A tailings dam at a Brazilian iron ore operation owned by local mining giant Vale (NYSE:VALE) burst Friday, releasing a river of sludge that covered nearby buildings and forced the evacuation of hundreds of locals.
By Saturday morning, 34 bodies had been recovered, and the death toll was expected to rise sharply as rescuers continued searching for hundreds that are still missing.
Vale reported the dam breach Friday morning, adding that the leaked tailings from the Feijão mine in the state of Minas Gerais had spread into the mine’s administrative area and to parts of the local community Vila Forteco, near the town of Brumadinho.
The accident panicked locals who still have vivid memories of the deadly dam failure at Samarco, BHP and Vale’s joint venture, which killed 19 people in 2015 and became the country’s worst ever environmental disaster.
“No lessons were learned from the Mariana tragedy,” Greenpeace Brazil campaign coordinator Nilo D’Avila told JovenPam. “It’s the same company and the same kind of accident.”
Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said the dam at the Feijão mine had a capacity of 12 million cubic metres, far less than the 50 million cubic metres Samarco’s one had in 2015. He added the facility was being decommissioned and that equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan. 10, Reuters reported.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro lamented the incident on Twitter, adding he was sending three cabinet ministers to the area. “Our greatest concern at this time is to attend to possible victims of this serious tragedy,” he wrote.
Earlier on Friday AFP agency reported there were “several” deaths as a consequence of the tragedy and Vale acknowledged in an emailed statement that there were “possible victims” among employees who were at “an administrative facility” hit by the mud.
Brazil’s National Mining Agency on Saturday ordered Vale to suspend operations at the mine and Minas Gerais state prosecutors entered a motion to freeze 5 billion reais ($1.3 billion) in the company’s accounts for handling damages. It’s expected that more funds will be frozen in days to come.
Record TV Minas caught the moment a victim was rescued by the fire corps helicopter:
The Feijão mine is part of Vale’s southern system operations, which is made up of three mines and two ports and accounts for about a quarter of the company’s iron ore output, according to RBC Capital Markets.
Shares in Vale, the world’s number one iron ore producer, cratered on the news and were trading almost 10% lower in New York at $9.76 by 2:05pm local time. The company’s bonds due in 2022 also fell, hitting their lowest price since 2017.
(With files from Reuters)