One year after Vale’s Brazilian dam burst, burying Brumadinho

A dam at Vale’s Corrego do Feijão mine collapsed in January 2019, killing about 300 people. (Image: Screenshot from BBC News video)

Exactly one year ago tomorrow, a Brazilian dam operated by iron ore miner Vale SA gave way to a tsunami of 9.7 million cubic meters of mining sludge that buried part of a town and killed 270 people.

In the days, weeks and months since then, the world’s largest iron-ore miner has made progress in undoing some—but not all—of the damage done when the dam burst. Its CEO stepped down (he was charged with homicide this week by local prosecutors). Its stock price has recovered and output is on its way. But the community that was unmade when the structure fell will never truly be remade.

In the aftermath of a tragedy, words often aren’t enough to describe the devastation. People who were in the city of Brumadinho on Jan. 25, 2019, and those who have visited since then struggle to find words to describe the devastation in a way the outside world can grasp. It is, even to those who lived through the tragedy, beyond understanding.

Local firefighters still scour the mud at Brumadinho. Each day, the hunt for the missing goes on

Gone is the constant whoosh of helicopters overhead that spirited out the dead on dangling stretchers. In their place is the sound of hundreds of bulldozers and trucks.

While the surrounding community will never be rebuilt, Vale is on the hook for at least cleaning up the sludge laced with iron ore residue and mining waste so that it doesn’t further pollute Brumadinho water supplies. It’s laborious work that requires draining the water from the mud, packing the dirt down into bricks, piling them up in the countryside and covering them up with replanted vegetation.

Meanwhile, local firefighters still scour the mud at Brumadinho. Each day, the hunt for the missing goes on. And each day, more often than not, body parts are all they can find.

In the days after the collapse, the mud was so wet in some areas that body sniffing rescue dogs couldn’t catch a scent. A team of 150 rescuers crawled through the wreckage and searched the sludge with their hands. So far, 259 bodies have been identified through DNA sampling and, around Christmas last year, two more bodies were found. But 11 are still missing, and the 90 firefighters that remain say they won’t give up until they find the rest. They use excavators now to dig, watching closely as the dirt falls to the ground for any signs of the dead.

“We haven’t stopped for a single day, not even on Christmas, and we don’t plan to,” Lieutenant Douglas Constantino says. “Those families need closure.” 

Zeca Goncalves was finishing lunch when he heard what sounded like an explosion. He rushed out of his hilltop home to find the wall of mud had buried part of the city where he was born. The 68-year-old retired bricklayer looked toward a bed & breakfast where two cousins and two nephews worked, but he couldn’t see it. A neighbor’s house, some 20 meters away from his own, was also destroyed.

In certain pockets around Brazil, people still ask themselves: Could we be next? 

“I just stood there and stared at it for some 15 minutes—I went completely dumbfounded,” he says. “I went home to tell my wife, but she didn’t believe me. So I came back out and stared for hours more.”

Just about everyone in the mining town knew someone—most likely more than one—who died that day. Goncalves’s four relatives, along with several friends, were among them. 

Many of the people who remained took the cash payouts that Vale offered them, packed up and moved away. Direct family members got at least 700,000 reais (about $170,000), while others like Goncalves received 50,000 reais plus small monthly payouts. Goncalves can point out four or five houses on his street in the Corrego do Feijao neighborhood that now stand empty. He plans to stay put and instead used the money to buy a car. “This used to be the best place ever,” he recalls.

People across Minas Gerais state are still furious at Vale over the disaster. Fabio Schvartsman, who was CEO at the time, was charged this week with 270 counts of homicide, while Vale and a contractor, TUV SUD, were accused of environmental crimes. State prosecutors allege that the 65-year-old executive knew about the risks, but made false statements and hid information to protect the company’s share price.

“They turned a blind eye,” Prosecutor General Antonio Sergio Tonet told reporters. Their negligence, another official added, caused “the dam to break with the strength of a tsunami that destroyed everything in its way.”

In certain pockets around Brazil, people still ask themselves: Could we be next? 

A key factor in the disaster was the type of structure Vale used to contain tailings from its upstream mining operations. Mud built up behind a front wall that was 700 meters wide and as tall as a 24-story building. But there was internal erosion and the dense mud liquefied. Prosecutors say the company intentionally hid signs that the structure was failing. It has been ordered to dismantle at least nine similar dams and reintegrate them back into their environment.

Residents around the riskiest of the dams were relocated to settlements. But others still live nearby, always on alert for the sirens that Vale installed to tell them if ever it’s time to flee. All and all, Vale has spent $6.3 billion on provisions and expenses related to Brumadinho.

(By Sabrina Valle)

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