About a month ago, Brazil experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history. 60 million cubic meters of toxic industrial mining waste broke through two different dams and traveled 500km along the Doce river towards the Atlantic Ocean, destroying everything in it’s path.
I don’t use the word “destroying” lightly. The deadly mudslide wiped out the entire village of Bento Rodrigues, with 12-17 fatalities and more people still missing. Over 500 people have been displaced. The contamination has cut off the drinking water supply for a quarter of a million people, and the high levels of arsenic, lead, chromium and a variety of other heavy metals have been thoroughly obliterating the river’s ecosystems.
In a short-sighted effort to wash the toxic waste out of the Doce river basin, dams were opened along the length of the river which had the predictable effect of flushing all of the mud out into the Atlantic. According to Andres Ruchi, director of the Marine Biology school in Santa Cruz, the dense orange sediment currently covering the beaches will be a “disaster for the many species of marine life that feed and breed near the river mouth, including fish, leatherback and loggerhead turtles, whales and dolphins. The sludge could also reduce oxygen and alter pH levels in the water, causing great harm to aquatic life both in the river and in the ocean. Furthermore, the tide of toxins directly threatens the Comboios nature reserve, one of the only regular nesting sites for the endangered leatherback turtle.
Despite Brazil’s efforts to irreversibly alter marine life at the river delta as opposed to threatening inland ecosystems, scientists say the sediment could still alter the course of streams as they harden and significantly diminish the fertility of riverbanks and farmland where floodwater passed. Farmers have already began moving their herds away from the river, afraid of letting their animals drink the water, and even if locals wanted to continue fishing it would be impossible: all of the fish have been washing ashore dead or jumping out of the water in an attempt to escape. Meanwhile, in a laughably desperate and unquestionably dishonest attempt to save face, the company responsible for this tragedy has insisted that the mud is not harmful.
Needless to say, the Rio Doce and surrounding areas will never be the same.
How did this happen? The dams that broke and the mines that created the toxic waste belong to Samarco Mineração SA, a partnership between the Anglo-Australian mining group (and the world’s biggest mining company) BHP Billiton, and the Brazilian iron ore giant Vale. It is essentially a question of industry and development moving faster than monitoring processes, and so much money being made that no one really cares to go behind the profit surge and make sure that safety precautions are put in place. The DNPM is the state body responsible for monitoring the country’s dams, yet despite the preponderance importance of mining to the Brazilian economy, the dams are checked only once every 4 years. This is in large part because there are only 220 inspectors for 27,293 dam sites nationwide, meaning that each inspector is responsible for approximately 124 dams – an impossible burden of responsibility.
The only silver lining here (and it is slim) is that the company responsible for this catastrophe is paying with it’s reputation, profit margins and rapidly descending stock prices. Shares in BHP Billiton, which operates around the world extracting and marketing products from oil, gas, coal and iron ore to copper, silver and uranium, have been “battered.” Commodity prices were already at notable lows, and about £8bn (so far) has been wiped off the value of the company as shares in the UK and Australia have slumped by an average of 14%. Additionally, Samarco has been fined the equivalent of US$66 million by Ibama, Brazil’s federal environmental agency, although an anonymous government official has been quoted as setting the total cost of the disaster between US$1.3bn-US$2.6bn.
It is of course impossible to determine the cost of a complete loss of livelihood. This video provides a window into the lives of (now former) fishermen, while this video touches on why it is so complicated to create regulatory change in Brazil.
We have to do better.
We have to demand more from our governments to regulate dangerous industries and the chemicals they use because we cannot trust them (or large international corporations) to take care of us, or of our planet.
If you would like to help the victims of this man-made disaster, you can visit this website (in Portuguese), set up by Greenpeace, or this one (in English and Portuguese) created and managed by concerned Brazilian citizens.