The locals simply refer to the massive discharge from a local mine as the Mariana tragedy. This month’s news opens with the worst mining-related environmental disaster yet, the Fundão dam failure at the Samarco iron ore mine in Brazil. While one accidental release into the environment is one too many, this spill was different; civilians lost their lives. Beyond damaging the Rio Doce (Portuguese for Sweet River) and its ecosystem, this tailings release wiped out villages. In its news report, E&MJ offers a detailed explanation of what happened and the reaction from the executives at the two major mining companies that hold 50% stakes in Samarco (BHP Billiton and Vale).
Accidental releases such as this usually occur in fairly remote areas, where mining predominantly takes place. In Minas Gerais, however, many of the iron ore mines operate in close proximity to urban areas. The collateral damage was significant. Environmental activists are already making comparisons between the Samarco tailings spill and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and deciding which one is the worst environmental disaster. The fact that Samarco may be remembered for a tailings spill that rivaled a major oil spill is a frightening proposition. It will have a knock-on effect for Vale and BHP Billiton.
Who is to blame? Ultimately a dam failed. Tailings dams require a certain level of engineering and design. It’s obvious from the news report that the failure was slow enough to warn people of the impending danger and evacuate most of them. Could all of this been avoided? Too many rivers are turning orange and, no matter whether its active mining operations or legacy remediation sites, the mining industry is the culprit.
In the U.S., the people in West Virginia refer to it as the UBB disaster—the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that took the lives of 29 coal miners. This month, a federal jury found former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty of conspiracy for federal mine safety regulations. This is the first time that a CEO of a publicly held mining company has stood trial for the deaths of miners, and the jury’s decision has far ranging implications. Those who knowingly flout safety regulations and misrepresent the situation will be held accountable.
While it’s not over yet—sentencing is scheduled for March and Blankenship will likely appeal—the conviction will give surviving relatives some level of solace. Blankenship shares the blame with others, some of which have already been prosecuted. Yes, this too could have been avoided. Others will say that regulators had an obligation to close that mine and that they too failed those 29 miners. Massey Energy will not be remembered for its accomplishments. Instead, it will be remembered as an unsafe Appalachian coal operator.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes years, sometimes decades to build trust and brand credibility, especially in the mining business. The weak link can erase all of those efforts in hours. Engineers have a fiduciary responsibility to identify these types of risks to the best of their ability, daylight them as soon as possible and eliminate them. When a surgeon has a bad day, his or her patient dies; when an engineer has a bad day, people perish, the environment suffers and the livelihoods of many more are jeopardized.
Steve Fiscor, E&MJ Editor-in-Chief,