Brazil dam collapse: Death toll rises as mining company faces criticism

The aftermath of the dam collapse near Brumadinho in southeastern Brazil.

(CNN) — The number of deaths from a collapsed dam at a Brazilian iron mine rose on Sunday from 37 to 58, a spokesperson for the Civil Defense said.

Authorities say 427 people were in the Córrego do Feijão mine in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais when the dam burst Friday, unleashing a muddy sea of mining debris into the region.

Hundreds of people are still missing and the extent of damage is still being calculated, especially in the mining town of Brumadinho, which was nearly buried in the deluge.

The latest death toll was announced after rescuers returned to the mine Sunday afternoon. Authorities temporarily halted search and rescue on Sunday and placed 3,000 people under evacuation orders amid fears that another dam nearby was about to rupture. The orders were lifted after authorities determined dam VI was no longer at risk of bursting.

The disaster renewed scrutiny of Brazilian mining giant Vale, which was linked to another deadly dam collapse in Minas Gerais less than four years ago. Protesters gathered in Casa Branca, about 15 kilometers from Brumadinho, waving signs that read “Vale kills” and “Vale profits while mud kills,” local media reported.

Greenpeace Brazil said Vale’s “corporate greed” and “the omission and inefficiency” of the Brazilian government were to blame for the 2015 incident in Mariana and the latest in Brumadinho.

“We are not dealing with an accident, but with a crime against people and nature. How many lives do we still have to lose [until] the Brazilian state and mining companies learn from their mistakes?” Greenpeace Brazil Campaigns director Nilo D’Ávila said in a statement.

‘They could only run for their lives’

The breach flooded parts of Minas Gerais and buried most of Brumadinho, according to footage from CNN affiliate Record TV. Debris spilled into the mine’s administrative area, where employees were working, Vale said.

Heavy rains hampered search and rescue. Video showed helicopters hovering feet above the ground as firefighters plucked people from the muck.

At least 361 people have been found and 305 are still missing, Civil Defense spokesperson Col. Flavio Godinho said. Additionally, 23 people are hospitalized, the fire department said. Nineteen victims have been identified, Godinho said.

Vale has a list online with names of people it has not been able to contact.

Karolainy Stefany de Jesus, 21, lives close to the affected area. She received a call from her uncle, who works at Vale, and ran to the affected area to see if she could find relatives.

She found was a scene of despair, she said.

“I could only see people screaming and shouting,” she said. “The sirens did not work, only people shouting to advise others, everyone was desperate.”

De Jesus’ niece, Cristina Paula, is missing and is not on any list. Paula worked at hotel Nova Instancia, which was engulfed by the mud water during the dam break. De Jesus says two survivors in the hotel told her that employees didn’t have time to advise anyone because, “They could only run for their lives.”

“It is devastating, everyone here at the community is in shock, nobody expected that to happen,” de Jesus said.

Accusations of wrongdoing mount against Vale, Brazilian government

Officials say they expect to contain the sludgy mine waste known as tailings within two days. The Brazilian National Water Agency said they are monitoring the tailings and coordinating plans for supplying water to the affected region.

Attorney General André Mendonça said Vale is responsible for the disaster — the second of its kind in three years involving the mining company.

Authorities called the 2015 Mariana dam collapse the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history. The collapse killed 19 people and wreaked havoc on the environment, leading mining company Samarco — a joint venture between Vale and BHP Billiton — to reach a deal in 2016 with the Brazilian government to pay up to 24 billion reals ($6.2 billion).

In a company video over the weekend, Vale chief Fabio Schvartsman called the Brumadinho dam break “inexcusable” and asked the Brazilian public for forgiveness. He said the company will aid victims and noted that Vale put “immense effort” into improving its dams after the disaster in Mariana.

But Greenpeace and others accused Vale and the Brazilian government of failing to act after Mariana, contributing to the latest breach.

In a news conference Sunday, Regional Development Minister Gustavo Canuto said that government failed to enact legislation after the Mariana disaster to improve policies for securing dams.

“The National Security Dam Policy was edited in 2010. It is a law that needed to be reviewed. After the accident in Mariana, various projects were presented but we couldn’t finalize this change in the law, but this is essential, Canuto said.

“The responsibility of monitoring and avoiding future disasters is on all of us: private, state and federal. The idea is that we all sit at the table, listen to specialists, review the regulatory framework and improve this situation to avoid other disasters in the future.”

Local environmental activist Carolina de Moura echoed Canuto’s comments about a lack of policy reform after Mariana. She says she attended public hearings and meetings with civil society for Vale’s licensing renewal and was disappointed by the company’s lack of transparency.

“We attended periodic meetings at their offices. No one had any information of any problems in the dam, but they were less than transparent. They wouldn’t even share with us the presentations they made, for example,” she said.

She says she hopes Vale will face legal consequences this time around, but she’s not optimistic.

“The only possible response is the full restoration of the Rio Doce basin. However, considering what happened in Mariana, I think we will still suffer for this for a very long time.”

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