Brazilian miners set to miss deadline for removal of tailings dams

Tailings’ filtration plant at Vargem Grande complex, delivered in March 2021. (Image courtesy of Vale’s Q1 2021 Financial Report.)

Vale and other Brazilian mining companies are set to miss a legal deadline in the state of Minas Gerais for the removal of all tailings dams built using a method linked to past collapses, and the industry is seeking to change it.

The Feb. 25 deadline has been considered unrealistic by the mining industry ever since it was first set in early 2019, a month after the collapse of a tailings dam in Brumadinho that killed 270 people.

The Minas Gerais law, which requires the removal of all dams constructed using the upstream method, in which the wall of the structure is formed using dried mining waste. The upstream design was used in Brumadinho and also on the Samarco dam that collapsed in the city of Mariana in 2015.

Those in breach of the law could have their operating license suspended.

Only 18 of the 48 upstream dams that existed in Minais Gerais in 2019 will be decommissioned by the deadline, according to a survey by the Federation of Industries of the State of Minas Gerais (Fiemg). Another six in the state should be removed by the end of the year.

Fiemg decided to appeal to the courts to avoid potential penalties linked to the deadline and find ways to make it more flexible depending on the scope of the work involved.

It filed a lawsuit in court last week questioning the constitutionality of the state law and plans to legally request this week that the judiciary mediate to ensure decommissioning is carried out based on the needs of each project.

“We don’t want it to be slower, one must do what is safest. Decommissioning in a hurry would also be a risk,” Flavio Roscoe, Fiemg’s president, told Reuters, emphasizing that the decommissioning process and the deadline should take into account individual structures and safety.

A federal law published in September 2020 also sets the Feb. 25 date for elimination of upstream dams, but provides that the deadline may be extended by the entity that regulates and oversees the mining activity.

Vale, owner of the largest number of dams related to iron ore production in the state, has eliminated four upstream dams in Minas Gerais since 2019 and another three it has in Pará state, of the 30 it found across the company, according to a report by the miner.

The company this week began decommissioning the first of five such structures that are scheduled to be decommissioned later this year in Minas Gerais, which produces much of Brazil’s iron ore and large amounts of other key metals.

Vale, in a comment to Reuters, reiterated its commitment to decommission upstream dams in the South American nation and prevent new disasters.

There are other upstream dams in the state owned by companies like CSN, Gerdau and ArcelorMittal, according to records of the regulator ANM and the Minas Gerais government.

ANM, CSN, Gerdau and ArcelorMittal did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(By Marta Nogueira and Carolina Pulice; Editing by Paul Simao)

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