Saturday 14 November 2015

Brazil's environmental catastrophe

Brazil's slow-motion environmental catastrophe unfolds
Toxic mudslide from collapse of dams spreads as BHP Billington fined $66m

13 November, 2015

Nine people are now confirmed dead, and a further 19 remain unaccounted for as a slow-motion environmental catastrophe continues to unfold following the collapse of two mining dams in Brazil’s mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais.

Eight days after the town of Bento Rodrigues was swept away by 50m cubic metres of toxic mud, a slow-moving tide of toxic iron-ore residue is oozing downriver, polluting the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents as it makes its way to the ocean.

Brazil’s national water agency, ANA, has warned that the presence of arsenic, zinc, copper and mercury now present in the Rio Doce make the water untreatable for human consumption. Already the lack of oxygen and high temperatures caused by the pollutants has killed off much of the aquatic life along a 500km stretch of the river.

It is a tragedy of enormous proportions,” Marilene Ramos, president of Ibama, the federal environmental agency, said. “We have thousands of hectares of protected areas destroyed and the total extinction of all the biodiversity along this stretch of the river.”

The mine and dams are operated by Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between the Anglo-Australian mining group BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, and the Brazilian iron ore giant Vale. Shares in BHP Billiton, a FTSE-100 company and therefore a key holding of pension funds around the world – have been battered. Some £8bn has been wiped off the value of the company as its shares in the UK and Australia have slumped by an average of 14%.

For the company – which operates around the world extracting and marketing a range of products from oil, gas, coal and iron ore to copper, silver and uranium – the dam burst comes as mining firms are under pressure. Commodity prices are at a multi-year lows as a result of slowing demand from China. BHP Billiton’s UK shares, which closed at 883p last night, were changing hands at almost £20 only 16 months ago.

On Thursday, Ibama announced a preliminary fine of 250m reals (US$66m) for Samarco, but the final cost – the financial and reputational damage – will be much, much higher.

Ramos stressed that the fine did not include the cost of the clean-up operation, lawsuits and compensation payments. The Brazilian financial magazine Exame, quoting an anonymous government source, said the total cost was likely to run to between R$5bn-R$10bn (US$1.3bn-US$2.6bn).

There will also be operational losses: the Minas Gerais mine produced more than 5% of BHP Billiton’s iron ore output and about 3% of the group’s earnings. Now Samarco has also been stripped of its mining licence.

BHP Billiton was formed in 2001, when Australia’s Broken Hill Proprietary merged with South Africa’s Billiton. By Thursday the firm, and its partner Vale, had sent senior management to see the damage caused and promised an emergency fund expected to be around $100m. But already there are allegations that there had been warnings about the design of the dam and its safety.

Asked whether she still had confidence in Brazilian mining regulations, Ramos said she believed safety measures needed to be revised in the wake of this disaster. “It cannot be right that in the last 12 years we have had five accidents in the state of Minas Gerais alone,” she said.

Early next week the mudslide is expected to reach the Atlantic, with a potentially devastating impact on the fishing communities along the coast of the state of Espírito Santo 
On a visit to the affected region on Thursday, President Dilma Rousseff described the incident as “possibly the biggest environmental disaster to have impacted one of the major regions of our country”.

She compared the scale of the damage to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and laid the blame squarely on Samarco.

We are committed in the first place to finding those who are responsible,” Rousseff said. “Who is responsible? A private business, Samarco – a big business that has Vale and BHP Billiton as partners.”

Also on Thursday, Brazil’s deputy attorney-general, Sandra Cureau, argued that the companies should be subject to “exemplary punishment” given their “negligence” over the accident.

Vale and BHP were totally careless in preventing this,” she said. “They did not show a plan of action in case of disaster. They had no alarm system in place.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, the chief executives of BHP Billiton, Andrew Mackenzie, and Vale, Murilo Ferreira, offered apologies for the disaster and insisted they would honour their obligations as joint owners.

However, they offered no comments to reports that Vale had diverted extra waterfrom another mine to the tailings pond behind the dam in the weeks preceding its collapse.

The government itself has come under criticism for the sluggish nature of its response. Critics point out it took Rousseff a whole week to visit the region, while the conservative daily Folha de São Paulo pointed out that the state body responsible for monitoring the country’s dams, the DNPM, checked each of them only once every four years.

Despite the importance of mining to the Brazilian economy, the DNPM only has 220 inspectors charged with monitoring 27,293 sites nationwide. Last year, three workers were killed at a dam near the area of last week’s accident.

In 2012, thousands of residents of the town of Campo dos Goytacazes were forced to flee their homes as water starting leaking through a dam. Another breakage at a dam in the north-eastern state of Piauí in 2009 resulted in the deaths of 24 people.

Maurico Guetta, a lawyer for the environmental NGO Instituto Socioambiental , described the close links between the government and the mining industry in a blog post for the organisation: “Could it be that this tragedy would bring any lessons for our governors and legislators? Unfortunately, there seems to be no sign of that,” he wrote.

Vale was one of the major corporate donors to both Rousseff and the main opposition candidate, Aécio Neves, in last year’s presidential elections. Fernando Pimentel, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais and another beneficiary of Vale campaign donations, held his first press conference in the wake of the tragedy at the headquarters of Samarco.

At present congress is debating a law that would diminish environmental regulation for “strategic infrastructure projects in the national interest”, including mining.

Meanwhile, in Governador Valadares , a town of 200,000 people some 330km from the site of the original accident, the local authorities are bringing in emergency water supplies for hospitals and schools from up to 100km away.

For other residents, the stockpiles of drinking water are running low. “The town’s three universities have closed and all the students have all gone home,” said Nagel Madeiros, from the city government. “Many people are leaving.”

The original story

7 November - Nineteen people missing as mining executives suggest that an earth tremor could have triggered the disastrous collapse of two dams

Rescuers continue search for survivors after flooding from two collapsed dams used by mines owned by BHP Billiton and Vale swept through six villages

Photos gallery: The astonishing situation of Brazil’s worst drought on record

12 October,2015

Brazil’s Amazonian rainforest has become a shadow of its former self as the worst drought the country has seen in 100 years continues. 

Low levels of water in the Rio Negro have left boats stranded and isolated homes sitting in the middle of the large deserted landscape, reports Daily Mail. Locals are surviving with as little as small pools of water to live off of. 

The main water supply in São Paulo has been running on emergency reserves, and the system is only able to deliver about 40 percent of its usual capacity. Before 2014, it was able to supply approximately 8,700 gallons of water per second, but now, it only delivers around 3,500 gallons per second. 

Because two-thirds of Brazil’s power comes from hydroelectric power plants, electricity has also been in short supply. Widespread blackouts have hit the country’s largest cities, and increased energy rationing is a possibility, which could stunt the economy. 

Navigation of rivers in the region has been impeded and delivery and shipments have become problematic. As a direct result, companies such as state oil company Petrobras are facing difficulties while trying to ship crude and natural gas, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Petrobas has had to halt some of its tankers on the Rio Negro and the Solimões rivers until they become navigable and the navy allows ships to sail out to the oil fields.

The drought has delivered a blow to both consumers and providers in Manaus due to the dwindling supply of products. Because of the Amazon tributaries’ low levels, shipping of merchandise from the duty-free zone has to be done by air, whichincreases the price consumers have to pay. This combined with the Aleixo lake almost being dry has been causing environmental damage and putting fishermen out of business.

Limited access to water has also caused issues amongst neighbors as they get into disputes during temporary shutoffs. Poorer areas of the city have just as bad or even worse luck, considering they have even less access.

They have two hours of water on tap - the women don’t sleep because the water comes in the early hours of the morning, at around 4 a.m.,” said Martha Lu, a resident of São Paulo. “They don’t have water storage, so they have to stay awake because they don’t know when the water is coming again. They stay up to collect it in buckets and try to do laundry, it’s terrible.”

João Pereira de Araúj, Rio Branco, Brazil, 14 March 2015:

I have seen many floods in my life, but never this high. My home is built on stilts, but now the lower floor is submerged. I look out of the window and see street after street under water – so many homes and shops. All we can do is wait for the water to go down, clean up and continue.

Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World was shortlisted for this year’s Prix Pictet global award in photography and sustainability. It will be at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris until 13 December, and on billboards as part of Artists 4 Paris Climate 2015.

Photo by Gideon Mendel.

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