Regencia, Brazil – “I was making ice cream, and didn’t hear the noise,” recalls Neuza da Silva Santos. “My sister arrived, yelling that the dam had broken, and I went outside. The river was already full of sludge. I went back inside and closed the window because I thought I would be coming back. We ran.”
Da Silva Santos didn’t come back. Her decision to drive away ended up being fateful, as she survived the collapse of the dam by getting in a car; 19 other people were not so lucky. Reports show that although Brazilian mining company Samarco, the dam’s owner, knew about a leak at the impoundment 10 hours earlier, there had been no warning siren.
According to the United Nations, 50 million tons of iron ore and toxic waste were dumped into the river that day. The sludge covered riverbanks and cropland along the entire length of the 853-kilometer (530-mile) river, killing fish and other wildlife, and contaminating the drinking water supply for much of the river valley. Toxic sludge reached the Atlantic some two-and-a-half weeks later.
It’s considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. The mining industry accounts for more than $1.4 billion (1.23 billion euros) in the city of Mariana, where the disaster occurred. According to a report by Brazilian daily “Folha de São Paolo,” Samarco was attempting to quintuple the size of the Fundão waste reservoir by connecting two different tailing dams when the collapse happened.
Samarco is a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies. Brazil’s Globo television network revealed that the company’s sensors had detected possible danger of collapse in 2014 and 2015 before the actual failure – although the company said the dam had passed inspection in July.
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