The article “Clearer picture emerging over Brazil’s mining disaster” was written by Sam Cowie for Deutsche Welle on January 27, 2016. This news of the Mariana mining disaster is a hydrology issue of water quality and environmental protection. The article is an update about the Samarco mine tailings dam failure that occurred on November 5th, 2016. The failure has been called “Brazil’s worst environmental disaster” because it released millions of tons of mud containing mineral residues into the Rio Doce. The environmental damage was extensive as the mud traveled down the Rio Doce to the Atlantic Ocean. The flooding from the dam failure destroyed nearby communities in the municipality of Bento Rodrigues, killing seventeen people and leaving hundreds homeless. The article by Cowie calls the mud “toxic”, which has been a source of controversy ever since the disaster occurred. Samarco originally claimed that the water and mud released by the dam failure were not toxic. However, the United Nations human rights agency released a statement that contradicted Samarco by saying that the mine waste “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals” (Reuters, Nov. 26, 2015). Another recent article that describes the growth of the spill into the Atlantic Ocean also describes the mud as “contaminated” and “toxic” (Alves, Jan. 7, 2016). This issue is still being debated as more evidence is gathered. The article by Cowie fails to mention this debate, but it does give a thorough description of the far-reaching impacts of the disaster.
This water resources engineering issue of mine tailings dam failure, flooding, and pollution influences economic, environmental, and societal context areas. The economic context relates to local and global economic issues, the environmental context relates to how the environment is being damaged, restored, and/or protected, and the societal context relates to the impacts on community members and their relationships with each other and/or the government. These context areas are often connected, and they are certainly interrelated in the aftermath of the Samarco dam failure. The disaster has affected the regional economy because of the entry of contaminants into the Rio Doce. The mine waste killed most of the fish in the river and consequently destroyed the livelihoods of fishermen along the river (Cowie, Jan. 27 2016). Samarco, owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, has been charged by the Brazilian government to pay $5 billion in fines as well as the costs of temporary housing for citizens displaced by the disaster. This could affect Samarco employees and both Vale and BHP Billiton stockholders all over the world. A full environmental assessment has not been made yet, but it is estimated that it could take 10 to 50 years for the region to recover (Cowie, Jan. 27 2016). In addition to killing fish, drinking water sources were polluted. This created both economic and societal issues in Brazil. Brazilians in the region of Bento Rodrigues were left with no home, no source of income, and no clean water in the wake of the disaster. This has caused some unrest and has put strain on many communities. Li and Azam’s review of Tailings Dam Failures confirms that failures at the scale of what occurred in Brazil have large socio-economic impacts and are associated with environmental pollution and infrastructure damage (Dec. 2010). Cowie showed how the Marianas mining disaster will have long-lasting direct effects of human suffering and environmental damage. These effects will continue to be felt in Brazil’s economy, environment, and society for decades to come. Proper design and monitoring of tailings dams is important in order to ensure that disasters like the Samarco dam failure don’t occur in the future.
Figure 1: Many homes in the municipality of Bento Rodrigues were destroyed by flooding from the Samarco dam failure. Source: Deutsche Welle
Figure 2: The release of millions of tons of contaminated mud into the Rio Doce has killed most fish in the river and left thousands of fishermen with no source of income. Source: Deutsche Welle
Alves, Lisa. Jan. 7 2016. Brazil’s Samarco Dam Mud Spill Grows in Atlantic Ocean. The Rio Times. Retrieved from: http://riotimesonline.com/brazil-news/rio-politics/mud-spill-from-samarco-dam-grows-in-atlantic-ocean/#sthash.UahtT2DV.dpuf
Azam, Shahid & Li, Qiren. Dec. 2010. Tailings Dam Failures: A Review of the Last One Hundred Years. Waste Geotechnics, Geotechnical News 50-53. Retrieved from: http://www.infomine.com/publications/docs/Azam2010.pdf
Cowie, Sam. Jan. 27 2016. Clearer picture emerging over Brazil’s mining disaster. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from: http://www.dw.com/en/clearer-picture-emerging-over-brazils-mining-disaster/a-19006554
Reuters. Nov. 26, 2015. BHP-Vale Samarco: Mud from Brazil dam burst is toxic, UN says. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/business/mining-and-resources/bhpvale-samarco-mud-from-brazil-dam-burst-is-toxic-un-says-20151125-gl8a4a.html#ixzz3yZAnBExC