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Hope turns to anguish after Brazil dam breaches

China Daily | Updated: 2019-01-28 07:59

Rescue workers are seen on Saturday after a dam, owned by Brazilian miner Vale SA, burst in Brumadinho, Brazil. At least 40 people were killed, and hundreds are missing. XINHUA

At least 40 killed, hundreds missing after accident at Vale iron ore mine

BRUMADINHO, Brazil-Rescue workers searched for hundreds of people missing and feared dead under a sea of mud after a tailings dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale SA, killing at least 40 people and halting mine operations.

The dam ruptured on Friday, releasing a torrent of mud that tore through the miner's offices and cut through a nearby town, leaving a roughly 150-meter-wide wake of destruction stretching for kilometers.

By Saturday night, when authorities called off rescue efforts until day break, the death toll stood at 40 dead with up to 300 people estimated to be missing. Throughout the day, helicopters flew low over areas buried by mud and firefighters worked to get to structures by digging.

Firefighters focused their hopes for finding survivors on a bus, a train, offices and nearby homes that were buried after the dam break at Vale's Corrego do Feijao mine in Minas Gerais state.

Witnesses saw homes knocked over, roadways washed out and a rail bridge demolished by the wave of mud.

Frantic family members of the missing crowded into a warehouse set up by Vale for those affected, next to a stretch of river erased by the sludge. More than a dozen helicopters helping to survey the area took off and landed from a soccer field nearby.

"Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We're likely to just be recovering bodies," said Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais.

During a news conference, Zema said the mining complex had all its permits in order and it was unclear what caused the collapse of the dam, which had been inactive for years.

German auditor TUV SUD said on Saturday it had inspected the tailings dam in September and found it to be operating well.

The National Mining Agency ordered Vale, the world's largest producer of iron ore, to halt operations at the Corrego do Feijao mine, located near the town of Brumadinho.

State courts in two separate actions froze a total of 6 billion reais ($1.59 billion) in Vale's accounts to eventually pay for damages. Environmental agency Ibama fined Vale 250 million reais for regulatory violations, while the state environmental agency, Semad, fined the company 99 million reais.

The death toll was expected to rise sharply, according to Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of Brumadinho.

Inside Vale's center for families of the victims, Carolina Oliveira Damaceno said her husband was missing. When a rescue worker came to tell her they were still searching, she fainted and had to be carried away on a stretcher.

Israel offers help

Israel offered to send search equipment that could be used to find victims in up to 10 meters of mud, Zema said. Search dogs were being flown in from Rio de Janeiro to aid in the rescue efforts.

All of those missing are Vale employees or contractors, a police spokesman said.

"I know a lot of the affected people: Two sisters-in-law, a cousin, many friends there in the community. They're in the mud," local resident Carlos Jose dos Santos said.

Minas Gerais is still recovering from the 2015 collapse of a larger dam that killed 19 people in Brazil's worst environmental disaster. That dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao SA joint venture between Vale and BHP Group Ltd, buried a village and poured toxic waste into a major river.

The Brazilian government has promised a full investigation into the matter. President Jair Bolsonaro flew over the destroyed region earlier on Saturday and promised manpower to aid the rescue, and resources to help the region recover.

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said on Friday the dam that burst was being decommissioned and its capacity was about a fifth of the total waste spilled at Samarco. He said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan. 10 and it was too soon to say why it collapsed.

A UN spokesman said on Saturday that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "deeply saddened" by the loss of life.

The Corrego do Feijao mine is one of four in Vale's Paraoeba complex, which includes two processing plants. The complex produced 26 million tons of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 percent of Vale's output, with Corrego do Feijao accounting for 7.8 million tons, according to the company's website.

On early Sunday, an alarm warning of an imminent mining dam rupture went up in Brumadinho, the mining company said.

Firefighters said they immediately began evacuating communities near the dam.

"Attention, general area evacuation!" blared a warning through loudspeakers in Brumadinho, with a population of 39,000. "Find the highest point in the city," the warning said.


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