Final Report-JT

The Brumadinho Dam Disaster:
Rape and Pillaging of the Rainforest and Gross Negligence Against Latinos by a Multinational Corporation

By Johnny Alexander Tablada-Rodríguez

         On 25 January 2019, an upstream tailings dam holding 9.7 million cubic meters of toxic mining sludge collapsed just 5.6 miles east of the tiny town of Brumadinho, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil.  In its wake, the toxic mining sludge, let loose by the collapse of the upstream tailings dam, left 270 people dead, of whom 259 were confirmed dead, and 11 others declared as missing (their bodies yet to be found), ruined infrastructure, killed livestock, and destroyed personal and commercial vehicles, robbing affected-area residents of their personal and financial investments, leaving most of them destitute.[1][2]

            The mining operation, at the site of the disaster, had been overseen, and carried-out by Vale, S.A., a multinational corporation, the largest producer of iron ore and nickel in the world.  Vale, S.A. is responsible for a multitude of mining operations throughout the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, as well as across the country.[3]  The company has a history of failing upstream tailings dams, another of which happens to be the Mariana Dam Disaster, which took place on 5 November 2015, just over three years before the Brumadinho Dam Disaster.[4]

            The affected region is located in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, downhill, downstream, and just 5.6 miles west from the mining operation, at an altitude of 880 meters (approximately 0.546 miles), with a population of roughly 18,534 persons.  This is a landlocked state, home to many towns, and cities which are made-up of various architectures such as Swiss Chalet, Colonial, and Baroque styles, and which are situated at around 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) above sea-level.  The region boasts mountain ranges with proper winters, cataracts, hot springs, lakes, and the third highest peak in Brazil, Pico da Bandeira.  Among these is the tiny town of Brumadinho, a town which is mostly used as a jump-off point to explore nearby attractions.[5]

            I aim to present environmental justice by bringing to light the incalculable ecological, and economical, and sociological damage, and the on-going suffering due to the company’s gross negligence.

            The state of Minas Gerais is the fourth largest state of Brazil, and the third state of the country by domestic gross product, responsible for 8.71% of Brazil’s GDP, and the country’s main producer of coffee, and milk.  It also holds many hydroelectric power plants, and has huge reserves of iron, gold, and gemstones (emerald, topaz, aquamarine).  It also is the second most populated state in the country, holding 10.06% of the country’s population.  As of 2020, it has a population of 21.29 million persons, a population density of 32.73 persons per square kilometer (roughly 84.8 persons per square mile).  The state produces agricultural commodities such as coffee, sugar cane, soy, oranges, beans, sorghum, carrots, potatoes, bananas, tangerines, strawberries, papayas, persimmon, and yuca.  Its production of coffee represented 54.3% of the total national production.  It is the second largest producer of cattle meat, the third largest producer of eggs, and the fourth largest producer of pork meat.[6]

            The collapse of the dam responsible for the torrent of toxic mining sludge which destroyed a large area of agrarian land, homes, and lives, has been attributed to the construction type adopted for the dam itself.  This construction type adopted is an upstream tailings dam.  Analysis shows that 55.9% of the world’s tailings dam failures with regards to dam height has occurred with tailings dams with heights of at least 15 meters in height.  The Brumadinho upstream tailings dam height a height of 89 meters.[7]

            Tailings dams are an indispensable part of mining safety, production, and environmental sustainability.  Supposedly, they are meant to last forever; however, past experience shows they present a serious ecological threat throughout the life of the mine and, especially, long after the mine closes.  Analysis of the performance of tailings dams provide information on the numerous issues which make tailings dams more vulnerable than other types of retention structures such as geographic characteristics, which include geology, seismicity, climate, and upstream catchment area.  They are a mixture of various ore wastes produced during the mining process, and contain numerous harmful, toxic substances.  There are many reactions among these toxic substances, resulting in more complex and uncontrollable hazards in the environment.  If this complex environment isn’t managed appropriately the leaked materials will enter the ground water, the surface water, and the surrounding farmland, which will result in severe damages and losses.  Storage, and disposal of harmful, toxic substances, in the mining industries is often ignored due to the cost control.  These dams are used to isolate tailings in order to prevent them from polluting the surrounding environment.  Because these dams do not bring any economic benefits to the mining corporations, their attention is mainly on the financial return from the mining operation, ignoring their importance and impact on the economic, ecologic, and sociologic health of the immediate region in which they are built for the function of the mining at hand.[8]

https://www.grida.no/resources/11422 1

            Vale, S.A., the company responsible for management and operations of the mining site, has had a history of trouble with the safety of its upstream tailings dam to at least two instances, Brumadinho and Mariana.  An expert panel of engineers who were commissioned by the corporation, concluded that a steep slope design and a high-water level created the conditions for failure which led to the fatal collapse of the tailings dam.  The panel, in its report, mentioned that the failure was “unique” as it occurred with “no apparent signs of distress prior to failure.”[9]

Brumadinho Dam Collapse / Antonio Lacerda / EPA / Shutterstock

However, a contradictory report by the Wall Street Journal states that employees predicted the dam would fail.  For years, employees had worried about the safety of the dam, and had brought this up to the attention of the company’s engineer who brushed-aside these concerns.  As it is with many of these circumstances, Vale, S.A. has denied that it ignored the warning signs, and the concerns raised by the employees, and that it was aware the dam as at risk of imminent collapse.  The same statements made by these employees has been expressed by the surviving relatives of these victims who gave similar accounts, explaining how their spouses, and children, witnessed leaks and/or helped shore-up the dam.[10]

            Just over a year after the collapse of the upstream tailings dam, on 21 January 2020, former executives of the Vale, S.A. company and German certification firm Tüv Süd were charged with homicide and environmental crimes for misconduct leading to the catastrophic collapse of the Brumadinho tailings dam.  The former Vale, S.A. CEO, Fabio Schvartsman, and 15 other employees, were charged with homicide for the deaths of the 270 people who perished in the accident.  Investigators found that Vale, S.A. executives knew or the problems and refused to invest in the necessary repairs.  Tüv Süd’s involvement in this story is that it was pressured by Vale, S.A. to certify the dam.  Ceasing operations to repair the dam would have cost more than U.S. $1M in daily production worth of iron ore, and Tüv Süd feared that Vale, S.A. would have retaliated by cancelling business with it had it given its operations an unfavorable review.[11]

            Vale, S.A. has decided to leave Brumadinho, a decision which has cost the affected area residents (those who were employed by the corporation) more than just the cash payments which they have been receiving.  This means that, with the corporation’s absence, the town’s budget has decreased, which was forced to cut down on health care, education, and many other services which were largely dependent on the taxes from the income of employees and the corporation itself.[12]

Results on the impact which the toxic mining sludge had on the local environment have identified abnormalities on Zebrafish which were reared in the Paraopeba River, and high mortality of their embryos were observed across this study, which reached an 85% in embryo mortality.  Changes in the quality of the water were detected after the collapse of the dam with studies pointing to possible threat to public health as these toxic chemicals stimulate growth of potentially pathogenic, and toxic microbes.[13]

Heavy metals, harmful non-metallic elements, strong acids, alkalis, and cyanides in tailings produce chemical reactions, to some degree or another, from the liquid to the gas phases with the presence of oxygen.  Their reactions produce toxic, nocive gases which are released into the air, polluting the surrounding environment.  Dust formed on the surface of the tailings is lifted and suspended in the air by strong winds polluting the air surrounding the tailings dam with harmful gases being discharged into air through oxidation.  These gases are colorless and small amounts may cause immediate death.  As well, the toxic, nocive dust raised, falls into the water, and farmland.  The combination of these two actions not only cause serious damage to the environment but also present a thread to the people living around the tailings dam.[14]

A personal observation of mine, when reading the article which provided the information presented in the previous paragraph, it made me reflect that nowhere did I find any information in which any of the governments in Brazil (local, state, national) actually set a mandate to alert the communities affected by any of the dam collapses to discontinue drinking the local water.  This is in contrast to how other nations have handled such cases.  The Chinese government has actually set mandates whenever any of their tailings dams have collapsed prohibiting the affected regional population from drinking the local water, and have gone as far as providing potable water and immediately cutting-off the links between the affected rivers in order to prevent further pollution while, at the same time, repairing the broken flood discharge culvert.[15]

The Brazilian government’s inability to effectively respond to the environmental crimes committed by Vale, S.A., and Tüv Süd, has led to several legal actions in European countries, which is where these companies are registered.  Before the disaster at Brumadinho, there were six other mining dam failures.  Corporate irresponsibility has been raised as the culprit, as well as the non-existence of adequate supervision of dams in Brazil.  Victims of the Brumadinho disaster have filed criminal complaints in German courts against Tüv Süd and against some of its officials involved in preparing the opinions on the viability of the dams.[16]

            Unfortunately, this type of event isn’t unique to the town of Brumadinho, nor to the state of Minas Gerais, nor to Brazil.  Worldwide, there are an estimated 18,000 tailings dams, of which 3,500 are estimated to be active.  These numbers are estimated to be much higher.  China, alone, has more than 12,000 tailings dams.[17]  Pollution of our waters is widespread worldwide and awareness about its effects on the environment must be brought-up for everyone to consciously put a concerted effort to make a long-lasting impact on our environment.  The studies of the effects which the toxic mining sludge has had, this past year, legitimize concerns for holding those who benefit the most from plundering the natural resources to leave the environment intact, at the very least, so that those who remain may continue to enjoy the environment as it once was, prior to the exploitation of the natural resources.

Keywords: tailings, dam, tailings dam, Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Vale S.A., Tüd Süd, pollution, contamination, rainforest, iron ore


[1] Fabio Schvartsman, “Fabio Schvartsman – Announcement About Brumadinho Breach Dam,” last modified January 25, 2019, http://www.vale.com/brasil/EN/aboutvale/news/Pages/fabio-schvartsman-annoucement-about-brumadinho-breach-dam.aspx

[2] Belo Horizonte, “Barragem da Vale se rompe em Brumadinho, MG,” last modified January 25, 2019, https://g1.globo.com/mg/minas-gerais/noticia/2019/01/25/bombeiros-e-defesa-civil-sao-mobilizados-para-chamada-de-rompimento-de-barragem-em-brumadinho-na-grande-bh.ghtml

[3] Daniel Gallas, “Vale: The Pride of Brazil Becomes Its Most Hated Company,” last modified January 30, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47056849

[4] Ryan Rifai, “Toxic Sludge Reaches Atlantic After Brazil Dam Burst,” last modified November 22, 2015, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/11/22/toxic-sludge-reaches-atlantic-after-brazil-dams-burst

[5] Sara Brown, “The 10 Most Beautiful Towns to Visit in Minas Gerais,” last modified May 6, 2018, https://theculturetrip.com/south-america/brazil/articles/the-10-most-beautiful-towns-to-visit-in-minas-gerais/

[6] “Economy of Minas Gerais by Production Sectors,” Minas Gerais, accessed November 19, 2020, https://www.minasguide.com/en/minas-gerais-economy-by-business-sectors/

[7] Rico, M. “Reported Tailings Dam Failures: A Review of the European Incidents in the Worldwide Context.” Journal of Hazardous Materials 152, no. 2 (2008): 3, accessed November 19, 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304389407010837

[8] Dong, Longjun. “Some Developments and New Insights for Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Control of Tailings Dam 269 (2020): 2, accessed November 19, 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652620323179

[9] Amanda Jasi, “Several Factors Led to Fatal Brazil Dam Collapse, Reports Expert Panel,” last modified January 7, 2020, https://www.thechemicalengineer.com/news/several-factors-led-to-fatal-brazil-dam-collapse-reports-expert-panel/

[10] Samantha Pearson, “A Vale Employee Predicted the Dam Would Fail. He Died When It Collapsed,” last modified May 30, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/he-was-ignored-workers-at-brazils-vale-predicted-dams-tragic-collapse-11559228132

[11] Madeline Miller, “Vale SA Should Rebuild Brazilian City It Destroyed: Company Ignored Safety Concerns, Leading to a Dam Collapse and Hundreds of Deaths,” last modified January 30, 2020, http://hillsdalecollegian.com/2020/01/vale-sa-should-rebuild-brazilian-city-it-destroyed-company-ignored-safety-concerns-leading-to-a-dam-collapse-and-hundreds-of-deaths/

[12] Madeline Miller, “Vale SA Should Rebuild Brazilian City It Destroyed: Company Ignored Safety Concerns, Leading to a Dam Collapse and Hundreds of Deaths,” last modified January 30, 2020, http://hillsdalecollegian.com/2020/01/vale-sa-should-rebuild-brazilian-city-it-destroyed-company-ignored-safety-concerns-leading-to-a-dam-collapse-and-hundreds-of-deaths/

[13] Thompson, Fabiano. “Severe Impacts of the Brumadinho Dam Failure (Minas Gerais, Brazil) on the Water Quality of the Paraeopeba River.” Science of the Total Environment 705 (2008): 5, accessed November 19, 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0048969719359091

[14] Dong, Longjun. “Some Developments and New Insights for Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Control of Tailings Dam 269 (2020): 13, accessed November 19, 2020.

[15] Dong, Longjun. “Some Developments and New Insights for Environmental Sustainability and Disaster Control of Tailings Dam 269 (2020): 13, accessed November 19, 2020.

[16] Letícia Aleixo, “Brumadinho Disaster, Year 1: Corporate Impunity And European Justice,” last modified January 27, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/democraciaabierta/desastre-de-brumadinho-a%C3%B1o-1-impunidad-corporativa-y-justicia-europea-en/

[17] “Tailings Are Mine Waste,” EarthWorks, accessed November 19, 2020, https://www.earthworks.org/issues/tailings/#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20comprehensive%20global,more%20than%2012%2C000%20tailings%20dams.”