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LatinNews Daily - 28 January 2019

BRAZIL: Vale in the firing line after dam break tragedy

On 27 January, Brazilian authorities confirmed that the number of casualties following a dam break on 25 January in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais state, had risen to 58, with 305 people still reported missing and 192 rescued.  

Analysis:

The collapse of the Feijão mine tailings dam in Brumadinho has echoes of the 2015 Mariana tragedy, when a dam burst releasing a flood of toxic mud, killing 19 people and causing immeasurable environmental damage. The Mariana dam was co-owned by Brazilian mining giant Vale, which owns the Brumadinho dam. With anger and despair mounting amongst those affected by the dam break as the search for survivors continues, questions are being asked as to why such a tragic accident has been allowed to repeat itself, and fingers are pointing to Vale in the search for a culprit.

  • The dam, which was used to store residue from mining operations known as tailings, broke around lunchtime on 25 January, releasing a sea of mud which engulfed Vale’s nearby offices, including a cafeteria where employees were having lunch, before burying homes and roads. Vale’s president, Fábio Schvartsman, says the causes of the collapse remain unknown. The dam was considered ‘low risk’ by regulatory authorities.  
  • The federal government declared a state of public calamity in Minas Gerais on 26 January, and President Jair Bolsonaro visited the affected area by helicopter that same day. “We will do everything in our power to attend to the victims, minimise the damage, investigate the facts, deliver justice and prevent new tragedies such as the ones in Mariana and Brumadinho, for the good of Brazilians and the environment,” Bolsonaro said on Twitter.
  • Bolsonaro also secured assistance from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An Israeli mission of around 130 military doctors, engineers, and volunteers arrived in Minas Gerais yesterday, to assist with the rescue mission.
  • Brazil’s federal environmental regulator, Ibama, has fined Vale R$250m (US$66m), while state and federal prosecutors have frozen a total of R$11bn (US$2.9bn) of Vale’s assets. National daily Folha de São Paulo, however, has reported local analysts as saying that the damage to Vale’s image will be greater than the damage to its finances.   
  • Schvartsman has apologised on behalf of Vale and said the company will invest in more stringent security norms. The mayor of Brumadinho, Nenen de Asa, described Vale as “incompetent and irresponsible” yesterday, while NGOs are calling for a prompt and thorough investigation and that those responsible be held to account.   

Looking Ahead: The search for survivors continues, although hopes of finding people alive are fast diminishing. Environmental regulators are monitoring the mud flow and analysing the river Parapoeba’s waters to assess the scale of environmental damage.