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Brazil’s Sweet River still runs orange seven months after a massive mining spill

Victims of the disaster have found it hard to adapt to life dependent on a company handout and plagued by uncertainty about their future.
"Area of risk, do not come closer" the sign reads in Portuguese. (Photo by Ricardo Martínez/VICE News)

Jen had just dozed off for an afternoon nap, while her two young boys played outside her room, when her husband called. He told her to grab the family's most important possessions and run. As they rushed out the door, people were racing and yelling desperately for everyone to go to higher ground because rivers of waste were about to flood the town.

The millions of liters of waste — a volume roughly equal to the capacity of the Hoover Dam — that gushed out of the Fundão mining dam on November 5 last year left 19 people dead, and wreaked devastation on homes and land in its path. The spill also affected biodiversity much further afield as it flowed into the Sweet River, Rio Doce in Portuguese, and eventually to the coast.


"We were forced to give up our lives in an instant. Our habitat was destroyed by man's ambition," Jen said, wiping away tears as she spoke of the loss of her home in the town of Bento Rodrigues that, along with the village of Paracatu, were completely destroyed. "We belong to those lands, not in a city. We only want to get back exactly everything we had there."

The Fundão dam collapse was one of the largest ever recorded spills. It was also, locals and investigators say, a disaster waiting to happen.

Though the direct cause of the disaster has yet to be determined, the federal government's environmental regulator and local prosecutors have said, since the accident, that there were evident safety risks from the moment the company started construction without the proper permits in 2007.

Fundão was one of three waste dams associated with the Germano mining complex in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais that was operated by Samarco, a company owned by BHP Billiton and Vale — two international giants from Australia and Brazil, respectively. The mine produced over one-fifth of the world's iron ore pellets, the material used to make steel.

Local prosecutors who opened an investigation into the disaster claim that the dam began spilling tailings — chemical-rich waste from mining operations — within a year of starting operations in 2008.

There was also no emergency plan so that when Fundão did collapse, people in danger got almost no warning or support, receiving the message to flee by word of mouth alone.


Watch: Dozens Missing Following Brazil Dam Collapse

Weeks later Samarco arranged and paid for 300 families to live in hotels and be fed for nearly two months in the city of Mariana, nine miles away. The company then provided the families with more permanent housing and a monthly stipend of about US$370, and the municipality raised roughly $240,000 and distributed that among the displaced.

However, victims of the disaster are far from satisfied. They have found it hard to adapt to life in the city dependent on a company handout and plagued by uncertainty about their future. They also say not enough has been done to help them recuperate a semblance of their previous rural life, tending to their fields and running small businesses in Minas Gerais.

Displaced residents from Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu gather several times a week in a small room to discuss their case with a variety of different actors ranging from company representatives to church organizations.

"What about that bridge, yeah, that one to cross to Bento that the company promised but never delivered?" one resident almost screamed during one recent meeting in which emotions were often hard to control. "It's all gone. How are we going to decide what's best for everyone?"

Meanwhile, toxic slime from the spill remains piled up along the banks of the Sweet River.

There are over 1,400 people living at Barra Longa municipality about 25 miles down the river that has been bright orange ever since the spill. Many of the houses near the banks are now falling apart. Brazilian media has also widely reported a spike in respiratory problems.


Valeria Fonseca, the head nurse of the local clinic, insisted she had seen no changes in the usual amount of respiratory cases. She confirmed that the clinic had no doctor until the company sent six in the wake of the disaster. She also insisted that the region desperately needs the mine to restart operations in order to give a boost to the local economy.

A former Bento Rodrigues resident expresses disbelief as Samarco lawyer explains compensation program (Photo by Ricardo Martínez/VICE News.)

But the obvious poverty seen in the towns along Minas Gerais state highway 129, known locally as the "iron ore corridor," belies the claims that mining has brought prosperity to the region.

The corridor includes four other mines that investigators say contributed to a waste pile-up in the Fundão dam that may have triggered its collapse. They are all owned by the Brazilian company Vale, though the company has denied that these mines sent a significant amount of waste to the dam.

In the meantime the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo and the three companies involved — Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton — reached a $5.9 billion court-approved settlement on May 5.

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However, that settlement was suspended on July 1 after the country's Superior Court of Justice considered a $46 billion claim filed by federal prosecutors Eduardo Aguiar and Edmundo Dias.

After carrying out in-depth investigations for months, they argue that the signed agreement was hastily negotiated without consultation with the affected population and is "insufficient."


They allege it was an effort to whitewash the negligence and collusion displayed by the three companies, the federal government, its environmental bodies, and the authorities in the two states involved.

Additionally, Minas Gerais state prosecutor, Carlos Pinto, highlights that the confusion between federal and local jurisdictions means it is harder to develop the kind of case-specific solutions that are required. He also berates Samarco for not having yet cleared up the waste in the months since the spill.

"We're not talking about five days or even two weeks, over half a year has passed," Pinto said. "It took six months for the company to fast-track construction of its Fundão dam, so how is it possible that Samarco says it has not had a way to clean up its waste?"

'Miss you Bento Rodrigues' written on an abandoned building. (Photo by Dr. Klemens Laschefski/VICE News.)

Samarco refused multiple efforts to obtain an interview or comment on the disaster. Media relations at BHP Billiton said the company, together with Samarco and Vale, had commissioned an external study led by global experts into the technical causes of the collapse of the dam and the damage it did, and that the findings will be made public.

Meanwhile, rather than raise consciousness, the spill was followed by a constitutional amendment approved in late April that observers say relaxes the rules around environmental impact studies required for mining projects.

Waste is still flowing out of the Fundão dam almost every time it rains, even though Samarco built three temporary dikes to contain leftover waste. A fourth dike was also planned but was not approved as its projected construction site was now on top of private property in the ruins of Bento Rodrigues. Several sources told VICE News that Samarco began construction for the fourth dike nevertheless in March.


According to Marcelo Campos, Minas Gerais' superintendent of the federal environmental regulator, the arrival of the full-on rainy season in October could put an untenable strain on the temporary dikes and other dams downstream within a month.

And many of those living along the mine corridor are terrified that another large-scale spill from a mine is just a matter of time.

"People living there fear their fate may be the same as Bento Rodrigues," said a worker who lives in a special village built to house workers but asked his name not be used for fear of reprisals from the mining companies for speaking out. "Look at it, it's huge."

Related: Peruvian Activists Predict a Right-Wing President Will Bring More Conflicts Over Mines

Follow Ricardo Martínez on Twitter: @Latamite