Since millions of gallons of mining waste burst from an inland iron ore mine a month ago, 300 miles of the Rio Doce stretching to the Atlantic Ocean has turned a Martian shade of bright orange, and the deadly consequences for residents and wildlife are just beginning to emerge.
At least 13 people died in the initial flooding, and many in communities along the river have suffered from diarrhea and vomiting as the toxic mud seeped into their water supply.
Eleven of the 90 native fish species in the river were already at risk of extinction prior to the spill, according to federal environmental officials, and experts believe that wide-ranging forms of animal and plant life will be wiped out as entire ecosystems are destroyed.
With Brazil’s level of biodiversity, the die-off is likely to include an untold number of species that have yet to even be discovered.
Several days ago, the toxic sludge, which continues to spew from the mining site, reached the Atlantic Ocean in the city of Linhares north of Rio de Janeiro, as workers undertake a series of emergency projects to mitigate the damage along the river and into the Atlantic.
“There’s never been a disaster like this before, so there’s no guidebook for what we’re supposed to do,” said Rodrigo Paneto, environmental secretary for Linhares, who is overseeing an emergency dam project to protect the city’s water source. “We’re in war mode, just running around responding to dangers as they appear.”
Meanwhile, residents of Linhares, nearby Colatina, and myriad inland communities join long lines to receive bottled water from the military.
Experts say diseases related to water supply issues will likely result in deaths of riverside residents. Authorities, meanwhile, struggle to learn what other types of toxic material have spewed from the broken dam. So far, they know that the mud contains extremely high levels of iron and manganese; dangerous levels of arsenic have also been detected.
We’ll see if anyone is really held accountable for this. Or whether, as is more likely, business-as-usual mining will go on around the world with more disasters like this inevitably occurring.