Sixteen days ago, two dams collapsed in Brazil. It was an absolute fucking disaster, for a variety of reasons.
Almost 16 million gallons escaped, sending a deluge of hazardous sludge into a tiny town called Bento Rodrigues and starting the journey towards the ocean. Bento Rodrigues was completely ruined, eleven people were killed, with 12 more missing and presumed to be dead, fire fighters found a human arm more than 50 miles away from the collapse, and a quarter of a million people were suddenly without drinking water. When the dams broke, a chain reaction of events was set into motion that the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, described as “the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.” Dilma Rousseff, the President,compared the devastation to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Fundão dam supported a reservoir for an iron mine called Samarco. It was chock full of incredibly toxic shit, including mercury, arsenic, chromium and manganese at levels far above human consumption levels. When that dam broke, it vomited all that toxic shit into the Rio Doce–which ironically translates into “sweet river”–a river with an incredibly important and delicate ecosystem. And, as rivers do, the Rio Doce ends its journey in the ocean, at a small fishing village called Regencia. The river there creates a handful of famous waves, acts as a nesting site for countless sea turtles, and is the foundation of a large portion of residents’ income, among other important roles. The region near the river’s mouth is a breeding site and feeding ground for leatherback turtles, dolphins, and whales. “The biodiversity of the river is completely lost,” explained Aloysio da Silva Ferrao Filho, a researcher at the respected Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. “Several species, including endemic ones, must be extinct.”
The wave of toxic mud reached the Atlantic ocean yesterday, and in doing so, kicked off one of the most devastating environmental disasters in a long time. “The flow of nutrients in the whole food chain in a third of the south-eastern region of Brazil and half of the Southern Atlantic will be compromised for a minimum of a 100 years,” Andres Ruchi, director of the Marine Biology school in Santa Cruz, told the BBC.
Although Samarco maintains that the toxic sludge from their reservoir is harmless–which is obviously bullshit– they have been working to minimize the effects it will have on the river. They set up six miles of floating barriers to protect the river bank from the mud, a laughably small amount, considering the length of the river. Since the mud is full of iron ore and silica, when it dries, it will harden just like concrete does. In an effort to protect the river, Samarco also dredged vast portions of the river banks to direct the mud to the Atlantic faster and dilute it.
“We believe that the mud is being diluted as it travels,” explained Luciano Cabral, a biologist working in the area, “and that the saltwater here will help in its dispersal.” He went on to say that although he was “cautiously optimistic”, it was still too early to say whether the barriers on the riverbank would be successful.
Antonio de Padua Almeida, the head of the Comboios nature reserve, agreed with Cabral. “The best thing that can happen now is for the mud to flow out to sea as quickly as possible. The mud will have much greater impact on the river than on the sea,” he said.
Samarco is owned by the Brazilian mining company Vale and an Australian company called BHP Billiton. They’ve agreed to pay $260 million as compensation, but putting a dollar figure on a disaster of this size is impossible. The impacts of mining disasters are far-reaching, and when it’s one of this size, the effects will be felt for years to come.
“The economic value of the fines that have been applied so far are comical,” Mario Moscatelli, a Rio-based ecologist, said to the BBC. “They merely provide an incentive for big companies to continue polluting Brazil because it’s worth it.”