BHP Billiton reported in mid-July that the Samarco joint venture’s iron ore mining operations in Brazil had not received government approvals for a restart and that such a restart was unlikely before year-end 2016. “Samarco’s operations will restart only when it is safe to do so and when all regulatory approvals are granted and accepted by the relevant authorities and communities,” the BHP Billiton statement said.
BHP Billiton and Vale are the joint-venture owners of Samarco. A disastrous tailings dam failure at the mine in November 2015 killed 19 people, devastated surrounding communities, and polluted the Rio Doce, a major downstream river.
In early March, the companies signed a Framework Agreement with Brazil’s federal government to fund restoration of communities and remediate environmental damage caused by the dam failure. Brazil’s federal court of appeal ratified the agreement, but Brazil’s federal prosecutors’ office has challenged it as being inadequate. The ultimate outcome of the pending court case remains uncertain.
Before-and-after scenes of restoration work along the Rio Doce river. (Photos: BHP Billiton)
Meanwhile, more than 90% of the 41 programs covered by the Framework Agreement have been initiated. A private autonomous foundation has been created to deliver the socioeconomic and environmental programs in the agreement, with oversight by an external Interfederative Committee consisting of representatives of the Ministry for the Environment, the federal government, the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, municipalities impacted by the dam failure, the Doce River Hydrographic Basin Committee, and the public defenders of the union.
Compensation for affected peoples, the reconstruction of public infrastructure, and the relocation of the impacted communities of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu, and Gesteira are key programs under the framework agreement.
As of mid-July, members of the Bento Rodriques and Gesteira communities had approved sites for relocation and rebuilding of their towns, and residents of Paracatu were scheduled to vote on their preferred location by the end of the month. The next step in the process is to engage the communities in architectural and urban design along with the construction standards of the residences.
More than 7,000 families whose livelihoods have been impacted by the dam failure are receiving financial assistance. The majority of these are either from communities closest to the mine or from communities along the Rio Doce and near the coast in Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo, where fishing-based livelihoods are prominent. An extensive negotiated compensation program has been developed to ensure affected people receive fair and reasonable compensation.
Environmental restoration programs include works to stabilize tailings deposited along sections of the river system, with the objective of reducing the potential for further erosion of tailings material into the river. These works include recontouring tailings deposits, establishing a temporary vegetation cover, and rock armoring sections of the main river channel and tributaries to reduce erosion.
Water testing is being conducted at 94 points along the Rio Doce and in marine areas near its mouth. Extensive geochemical analyses of the tailings and existing sediments and toxicity test work have also been undertaken. Results indicate that current metals content of environmental concern in the river’s water is similar to metals content found in earlier studies conducted in 2010 and that the tailings released into the river system are not toxic.
Dean Dalla Valle, BHP Billiton’s chief commercial officer, has been overseeing BHP Billiton Brazil’s support for Samarco in its response to the tragedy. “Samarco employees and members of affected communities have been working incredibly hard to deliver the remediation projects in the Framework Agreement,” he said.
“There is still much to be done to rebuild and restore, but we believe that working with Vale, Samarco and the Brazilian authorities we will be able to deliver on the commitments under the agreement, and we will do what’s right.”