Brazil’s Search for Survivors Halted on Fear of New Breach

A resident surveys damage after a Vale SA dam burst in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais state, Brazil, on Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. A Brazilian judge has blocked 1 billion reais ($265 million) from Vale SA while environmental authorities imposed a $66 million fine on the miner after a tailings dam it owns burst on Friday in the second deadly accident in the same mining region in just over three years. Photographer: Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg

Brazil authorities suspended the search for more than 250 people still missing after the collapse of a dam owned by iron ore giant Vale SA as rising waters prompted evacuations and fears of a new breach.

Brumadinho city center and other nearby neighborhoods were evacuated early Sunday after alarms were raised due to rising waters in another dam at the Corrego do Feijao iron ore mining complex in the region of Minas Gerais. The death toll from Friday’s accident now stands at 37, Civil Defense spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Aihara said at a televised conference.

The incident on Friday at the Feijao mine is the second deadly dam accident in just more than three years involving the world’s biggest iron ore producer. The risk of another accident adds pressure on the Brazilian miner, with the company now facing questions on its ability to prevent similar disasters.

It also tests Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership skills less than a month after his inauguration and may upend his plans to ease environmental restrictions and boost mining production through reforms in Congress.

Bolsonaro flew over the site on Saturday and promised to support the victims and investigate the accident. The president returned to Sao Paulo on Sunday morning, where he is expected to undergo intestinal surgery on Monday.

“How can they let this happen again?” Brumadinho Mayor Avimar de Melo said of Vale in a televised press conference, accusing the miner of incompetence. “They have wiped out our city.” He said Brumadinho will demand at least 100 million reais ($26 million) in compensation for the damage and loss of future revenue of 5 million reais a month.

A Minas Gerais state judge froze 5 billion reais ($1.3 billion) of Vale’s funds to ensure it has enough money to cover human and ecological costs stemming from the disaster. Another judge placed a freeze order on 1 billion reais, while environmental agency Ibama slapped 250 million in fines against the company.

In a statement, Vale said it isn’t necessary for authorities to block the funds to compel the company to provide emergency services and restoration from the accident. It said that it was notified of the first judicial ruling and will deposit 1 billion reais, adding that it hadn’t been notified of the second ruling.

Brazil’s worst-ever environmental catastrophe happened in November 2015 — the Samarco tailings dam spill that killed 19 people near Mariana municipality. Samarco is co-owned by Vale.

On Friday, a similar accident at Brumadinho unleashed sludge into a rural valley in Minas Gerais state, sweeping up people, cars and burying homes and roads under one million cubic meters of waste. The environmental impact is expected to be considerably smaller than the 2015 dam burst, but the human disaster is bigger, Vale has said. DM


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