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Dams Burst in Brazil, Thousands Impacted by Toxic Sludge

When two dams owned by transnational mining companies burst in Brazil, a flood of toxic mud and wastewater poured into neighboring villages and began its journey down the Rio Doce («Sweet River»). This tragedy could have been avoided if companies heeded warnings sounded more than two years ago. Instead, authorities estimate over 2,000 people have been affected in the immediate area of the dam, with more than 600 people evacuated (many rescued by helicopter), hundreds left homeless, and dozens of people who are still unaccounted for feared dead.

The pictures and reports coming from the ground are devastating. Homes washed away in an instant … cars tossed around like they were toys … people swept away in the torrent … the once verdant countryside leveled and coated in thick clay-colored sludge.

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB), a Grassroots International partner in Brazil, says this is a «serious catastrophe caused by negligence in the name of profit… Samarco Mineração S.A, company controlled by the groups Vale and BHP Billiton are guilty for this and must be held accountable.»

According to MAB, the two dams that burst were controlled by global mining companies Vale and BHP Biliton in the state of Minas Gerais. The Fundão Dam, owned by Samarco Mineração, broke on November 5, and the flood of mud reached the Santarém Dam, which held iron mining refuse, which also ruptured. The second breach released toxic waste into the Bento Rodrigues district.

Since dams burst, the toxic sludge has been making its way down the Rio Doce. affecting the cities and towns in its path as it flows towards the Atlantic Ocean. Many towns rely on the Rio Doce as their main water source and have been left without water for over a week, including the city of Governador Valadares with a population of 250,000.

At a news conference, the president of Samarco said that the waste is inert and does not harm humans. However, the people who came into contact with the mud have reported malaise, dizziness, headaches and pain, according to MAB. The disaster has also had devastating effects on the natural life of the river, killing untold numbers of fish and other animals. The sludge may include heavy metal waste such as mercury and arsenic.

Residents near the dams received no warning alerts of the imminent danger and hastily fled to the hills and high parts in the district. According to MAB, «Homes, schools, electricity, roads, everything has been destroyed. The residents were stranded and have been rescued by helicopters of the fire brigades.» According to the fire brigade, more than 500 people were rescued.

The real tragedy is that the devastation was entirely preventable. The world’s largest mining company (Australian company BHP Billiton) and the largest iron ore producer (Brazilian transnational company Vale) ignored warnings in 2013 from a study commissioned by the State Prosecutor that concluded weaknesses in the dams could lead to collapse and demanded the creation of an emergency plan and alert system. Communities had been filing complaints on the lack of movement by these mega-corporations and the insecurity of the dams. And, sadly, this is just another in a series of harmful impacts small farmers and fishers, indigenous and working-class communities have experienced when it comes to large-scale dams and mining projects in Brazil.

The company Vale, formally named “Vale do Rio Doce,” which in English translates to “Sweet River Valley,” is named for the region that it has poisoned. In response to these events, people in Brazil are saying that the “Sweet River Valley has turned bitter.”

Our partner in Brazil, MAB immediately rushed in to help those affected. Right now they are asking for your support to ensure that displaced families get the urgent help they need, including immediate housing and assistance. They also ask for your generous solidarity to build long-term resistance to hold multinational corporations accountable, ensure that the other remaining dams by the mine are reviewed for their safety and the environmental impacts, and make sure affected families are adequately compensated.