Massive Mine Dam Break in Brasil Leaves Hundreds Of Thousands Unable to Drink Their Water

November 16, 2015

Aerial view of the debris after a dam burst on Thursday, at the small town of Bento Rodrigues in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, Friday, Nov. 6, 2015.

Nine people are dead, 19 are missing, and 250,000 still don’t have drinking water two weeks after two dams at a mine in Brazil collapsed, sending 15.8 billion gallons of waste-laden water and sludge though downstream towns in the state of Minas Gerais, about 250 miles north of Rio de Janero.

Brazil’s president compared the disaster to the 2005 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Hundreds of people have been displaced and an entire town was swept away by the floodwaters.

 The top image shows the area on October 11, before the incident; the bottom image shows the area afterward, on November 12.

The top image shows the area on October 11, before the incident; the bottom image shows the area afterward, on November 12.  Courtesy of NASA.

Immediately after the collapse, officials from the mining company said the deluge was “not toxic.” The iron ore being mined in the area is responsible for the bright orange color.

But scientists told Reuters that the mud and water may also contain chemicals used by Vale to purify the ore. In addition, simply releasing this much water and mud into the area may change the pathways of local streams and suffocate wildlife. It will also likely affect the riverbanks.

“It’s already clear wildlife is being killed by this mud,” Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais told Reuters. “To say the mud is not a health risk is overly simplistic.”

When a dam collapsed in Colorado in August, many of the toxic contaminants in that water were naturally occurring, water-soluble elements — including heavy metals that dissolve over time and are dangerous to human health.

The Rio Doce valley in Minas Gerais has a long history of mining. But the state is also the country’s foremost producer of coffee and milk. South of the disaster, mineral spas are a leading tourist attraction. In recent years, the area has been plagued by both flooding and drought, which are both exacerbated by the mine-related damming.

The company was in the process of raising the dam wall, which authorities said was cheaper than replacing it. The state is investigating whether the reservoir was too full when the beach occurred.

Authorities are also questioning the mine’s preparedness for disaster. No alarm went off, Guilherme de Sa Meneghin, public prosecutor for the State of Minas Gerais, told Reuters.

“Every report we’ve heard until now shows that there were no sirens — no advanced warning — before the dam burst and to me this is a complicated matter. It is a basic (procedure) to have sirens because things can happen at any moment, even natural disasters,” he said.

So, far, the government has frozen $75 million in assets ​from the mining company, Vale SA, ​​to cover potential damages,​ a local news agency reported.

Cross-posted from Climate Progress: