UN calls for probe into Vale’s tailings as waste heads to Brazilian river system

Arial view of the mudslide triggered by the dam burst at Córrego do Feijão (Image: Screenshot from BBC News video.)

United Nations human rights experts called for an urgent and impartial investigation on Wednesday into the collapse of Vale’s tailing dam in Brazil, which killed at least 99 people, as well as into the toxicity of the mining waste, which is now heading towards a river that provides drinking water to communities in five of the country’s 26 states.

The tailings dam used at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine was built in the 1970s using the “upstream construction” method, which has long been banned in Chile, Peru and other neighbouring countries.

Baskut Tuncak, the UN expert on disposal of hazardous substances, asked President Jair Bolsonaro to prioritize safety evaluations of dams and to change licencing procedures to prevent reoccurrence of these kinds of tragic incidents.

As grieving relatives bury family members and rescuers continue searching for 261 people still missing, Brazilian authorities and companies involved with river water management are trying to stop the torrent of mining waste from reaching the Sao Francisco river. Currently, Associated Press reports, the potentially toxic mud has contaminated the smaller Parapoeba river, which flows into the Sao Francisco.

Vale said on Tuesday it would halt 40 million tonnes of production — about 10% of its annual iron ore output — so that it can replace dams similar to the one that burst last week.

“This leaves a hole in the seaborne iron ore market,” BMO analyst Colin Hamilton wrote on Wednesday. “2019 has gone from a year where we were looking to displace marginal tonnes to one where we will need to incentivize additional higher cost material to market.”

As a result, BMO has hiked its 2019 62% Fe iron ore price forecast to $78 a tonne from a previous $63 per tonne.

U.N. calls for probe into Vale’s tailings as they head to large Brazilian river

The tailings dam collapse, seen on Sunday, Jan.27 from Sentinel-2. (Image courtesy of @CopernicusEU and @ sentinel_hub. )

The global community has been left with several unanswered questions, particularly about the causes of the dam breach and why Vale didn’t do anything earlier to prevent it. Reuters reported the iron ore producer had identified concerns around its tailings dams in 2009, but did not implement several steps that could have avoided or lessened the amount of damage.

Vale will dismantle 10 dams that are similar to the one that collapsed on Friday, killing at least 84 people.

What is known is the tailings dam used at the mine was built in the 1970s using the “upstream construction” method. This is a design that has long been banned in earthquake-prone mining countries such as Chile and Peru because tailings are used to gradually build the embankment walls, making a dam susceptible to damage and cracks.

While Brazil is not as earthquake-prone a nation as its western neighbours, it’s been shown that even small seismic activity can affect tailings dams such as the one near Brumadinho.

Vale estimates it would need about $1.3 billion to decommission its upstream dams, a process that would take place over the next three years.

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