A tailings dam failed at the iron ore mining operations of Samarco Mineração in Minas Gerais state, Brazil, on November 5. Mining was halted immediately, and the company’s operating license was suspended.
The dam failure released huge amounts of tailings and water that spread more than 500 km downstream in the Doce River and reached the Atlantic ocean around November 20. The village of Bento Rodrigues, seven kilometers downstream from the dam, was hit hard. Most of the village’s 600 residents received sufficient warning of the oncoming flood to escape to higher ground. However, as of November 19, 11 were confirmed dead, and eight were still missing.
The failed dam was the middle dam of three earthen tailings dams built in sequence in a mountain valley to store tailings from the Samarco mine. Initial reports indicated that the lower dam had also failed; however, it was later found to be largely intact. Tailings from the failed dam had filled the storage basin behind the lower dam and then overflowed into the stream below. A Reuters report on November 17 stated that Samarco workers were racing to transport 500,000 m3 of stone to shore up the lower dam.
Samarco is an independently operated, 50:50 joint venture of BHP Billiton and Vale. The company is a fully integrated producer of iron ore pellets, with mine and concentrator operations in Minas Gerais and three slurry pipelines that transport concentrates about 400 km to four pelleting plants and shipping facilities at Ponta Ubu. Pellet production capacity totals 30.5 million mt/y.
BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie and President-Iron Ore Jimmy Wilson flew from Australia to Brazil and with Vale CEO Murilo Ferreira visited the Samarco mine and met with community leaders on November 11. In a joint statement, they said, “We were overcome when we saw the devastation in and around Bento Rodrigues. We cannot rebuild the lives of the families who have lost loved ones, but we redouble our commitment to Samarco to support the response effort.
“As an immediate step, Vale and BHP Billiton pledge to support Samarco in creating an emergency fund for rebuilding works and to help the affected families and communities. It is our intention to work with the authorities to get this fund functioning as soon as practicable.”
On November 17, Samarco signed a preliminary commitment guaranteeing allocation of $260 million to a fund to support emergency measures relating to the tailings spill, including prevention, mitigation, remediation, and compensation for environmental and social effects.
Other costs are expected to be substantial and will likely mount over time. Brazil’s environmental agency, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, has fined Samarco R250 million (about $67.5 million), and a lawyer has filed a civil lawsuit demanding R10 billion ($2.7 billion) in compensation for environmental damages.
At BHP Billiton’s annual general meeting of shareholders in Perth, Western Australia, on November 19, Mackenzie stated, “Everyone at BHP Billiton has been overwhelmed with sadness and concern for the community at Bento Rodrigues. I traveled to the region last week, and what I witnessed on site and around the community was truly heart-breaking.
“I want to reiterate that we are 100% committed to doing everything we can to support Samarco in the response effort and the community to recover and rebuild.
“We are deeply sorry to everyone who has and will suffer from this terrible tragedy. They have my absolute determination that we will fully play our part in helping Samarco reconstruct homes, community and spirit. We are in this for the long term and will continue to work with Vale and the people of Samarco to make sure there is a strong future for the region.”
[Editor’s note: This report was current as of November 23. Samarco, BHP Billiton and Vale were posting regular updates on developments relating to the spill on their websites: www.samarco.com, www.bhpbilliton.com and www.vale.com. Additional information relating to the environmental and financial impacts of the spill will undoubtedly become available as time goes on.]