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Brazil Mining Disaster

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Horrible stuff going on in Brazil. Two mining dams have collapsed in the state of Minas Gerais, creating a slow-moving ooze of toxicity into the Rio Doce that has already killed almost everything within 500km of the dams. The company is a joint venture of Vale, a huge Brazilian iron corporation and BHP Billiton, the South African-Australian mining conglomerate that operates around the world extracting everything from oil to uranium. Of course the mining companies are claiming that this toxic mud is totally safe:

Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton and owner of the mine, has repeatedly said the mud is not toxic.

But biologists and environmental experts disagree. Local authorities have ordered families rescued from the flood to wash thoroughly and dispose of clothes that came in contact with the mud.

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

As the heavy mud hardens, Laschesfki says, it will make farming difficult. And so much silt will settle along the bottom of the Rio Doce and the tributaries that carried the mud there that the very course of watershed could change.

“Many regions will never be the same,” he says.

Researchers are testing the river water and results should be published over the coming weeks, giving a better idea of the contents of the mining waste.

One cause for concern is that compounds known as ether amines could have been used at the mine to separate silica from the iron ore, in order to produce a better quality product.

According to mining industry research and scientific literature published in recent years, the compounds are commonly used at Brazilian mines, including Samarco’s.

At least some of the compounds, according to the website of Air Products, a company that produces them, “are not readily biodegradable and have high toxicity to aquatic organisms.” They can also raise PH levels to a point that is environmentally harmful.

“There will be serious problems using the water from the river now,” says Pedro Antonio Molinas, a water resources engineer and mining industry consultant familiar with the region.

Brazil has issued a preliminary fine of $66 million and that will no doubt be higher in the end. But Brazil has also gone straight ahead with its modernization program that includes cutting down the Amazon for cattle ranchers and allowing mining companies to do basically whatever they want to. The government might act in a time of crisis like this, but it’s opened itself to resource extraction as its path to modernization, whether the government is right or left. So events like this are hardly surprising. From the link at the top of this paragraph:

The government itself has come under criticism for the sluggish nature of its response. Critics point out it took Rousseff a whole week to visit the region, while the conservative daily Folha de São Paulo pointed out that the state body responsible for monitoring the country’s dams, the DNPM, checked each of them only once every four years.

Despite the importance of mining to the Brazilian economy, the DNPM only has 220 inspectors charged with monitoring 27,293 sites nationwide. Last year, three workers were killed at a dam near the area of last week’s accident.

In 2012, thousands of residents of the town of Campo dos Goytacazes were forced to flee their homes as water starting leaking through a dam. Another breakage at a dam in the north-eastern state of Piauí in 2009 resulted in the deaths of 24 people.

Maurico Guetta, a lawyer for the environmental NGO Instituto Socioambiental , described the close links between the government and the mining industry in a blog post for the organisation: “Could it be that this tragedy would bring any lessons for our governors and legislators? Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of that,” he wrote.

Vale was one of the major corporate donors to both Rousseff and the main opposition candidate, Aécio Neves, in last year’s presidential elections. Fernando Pimentel, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais and another beneficiary of Vale campaign donations, held his first press conference in the wake of the tragedy at the headquarters of Samarco.

It would be nice if the voters held Rousseff accountable, but given the power of the mining companies, it’s unlikely that there are going to be any successful anti-mining political movements.

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