As if it was a scene taken from the blockbuster disaster movie, 2012, rivers of death and destruction flowed red for over 400 miles before emptying into the Atlantic ocean as Brazil suffered its worst ecological catastrophe in history. The failure of a massive 300+ foot iron tailings dam at BHP Billiton and Brazil’s Vale Samarco Iron Mine, caused 50 million cubic feet of toxic iron sludge to pour into the countryside killing 19 people.
(Bento Rodrigues: photo courtesy of Felipe Dana/AP)
Even though this 30 story-tall iron mining tailings dam collapsed nearly a year ago, the broad ecological and legal issues are just now coming to the forefront. For example, an article just released yesterday titled, Brazil Charges 21 With Homicide For Failing To Avert Samarco Mine Disaster stated the following:
Brazilian prosecutors charged 21 people with qualified homicide on Thursday for their roles in the collapse of a tailings dam at the Samarco Mineração SA iron ore mine last November that killed 19 people.
The charges follow what is now considered to be the largest environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. The dam collapse released millions of tonnes of muddy mine waste, wiping out several small communities.
Prosecutor Jose Leite Sampaio told reporters at a briefing in Belo Horizonte, broadcast live by GloboNews, that executives at Samarco had clear awareness the dam could fail but ignored the risks and prioritized profit.
There were signs that the dam was unsafe for several years before its collapse, but Samarco officials, executives, employees and board members appointed by Vale and BHP failed to take proper action, Sampaio said.
This is the first time to my knowledge that a country has charged mining executives with “qualified” homicide. If convicted, those accused could face sentences up to 54 years in jail. No doubt, the penalties should be stiff if guilt or severe negligence is proven.
And that just might be the case. According to a recent article by the BBC, Samarco Dam Failure In Brazil ‘Caused By Design Flaws:
The report said that a change in the Fundao dam’s design between 2011 and 2012 led to less efficient water drainage, and ultimately to the dam’s collapse in November 2015.
There was increased weight on the tailings as the height of the dam was raised to more than 100m.
This weight pushed clay-like silt in one part of the dam outwards “like toothpaste from a tube,” ultimately causing the dam to collapse.
A small earthquake on the day of the dam burst may also have “accelerated” the failure, the report added.
While a small earthquake was an additional factor in the Samarco Tailing Dam collapse, it was likely the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. The size of the Samarco Tailings Dam can be seen in these stunning before and after pictures:
(Bento Rodrigues Before: July 2015, courtesy of ABC.net.)
(Bento Rodrigues Before: November 2015, courtesy of ABC.net.)
Furthermore, another article titled, BHP’s Deadly Dam Collapse Linked To Ramping Up Production, stated:
But Four Corners has seen evidence of a long history of problems at the BHP-owned dam dating back to the beginnings of its construction in 2007, and learned that independent testing of water samples from the river system has found levels of arsenic and lead 10 to 20 times higher than Brazilian regulations allow.
Brazilian state police now allege the disaster was partially caused by the mine ramping up production to offset the falling iron ore price. Brazilian authorities say the dam collapse has produced the biggest environmental disaster in the country’s mining history.
There seems to be a mining industry trend for increased tailings dam spills when the price of the metal falls. This is likely due to the corporate mentality of “Cost Cutting” when times are lean and mean…. LEAN if you are the corporate lackey, and MEAN if you live downhill of the dam.
I found actual evidence of this in another interesting article, Mining Dams Grow To Collasal Heights, And So Do The Risks:
A 2009 study by longtime industry engineers that examined 42 years of accident data found the frequency of tailings spills increases when commodity prices fall, “in the manner of a hangover after a good party.” This could reflect pressures to cut costs “once mines constructed on the basis of rising commodity prices are forced to operate with the reality of lower commodity prices,” said the study by engineers Todd Martin and Michael Davies.
With the price of iron ore falling 64% in three years, who could blame these fine upstanding BHP & Vale mining executives for cutting a few corners to keep bonuses forth coming and shareholders happy (sarcasm intended). While this massive tailings dam collapse has been financially challenging for these companies, at least they don’t live in the towns impacted by the 50 million tons of heavy metal toxic sludge which has now polluted over 400 miles of Brazilian rivers and streams.
This is the huge problem most in the U.S. or other western countries don’t have to experience as we drive to Starbucks to get our double-decaf latte. As the saying goes, THEY WORK….. WE EAT.
However, it would be prudent to update it to, THEY WORK, DIE & GET POLLUTED, WHILE WE EAT.
I have to say, I had no idea of this Samarco Tailings Dam disaster until I stumbled upon this weekend doing some research on my favorite Mega-Mining Company, BHP Billiton. BHP has been a favorite research project of mine because they are by far the one of the most reckless company I have seen in regards to safety and financial stupidity.
As I mentioned in a prior article, BHP has suffered $12 billion of impairment write-offs for its glorified U.S. shale oil and gas assets. Now, with Brazilian $44 billion lawsuit issued this May staring at BHP Billiton and Vale in the face, times are becoming a bit rough to make the big profits the mega-mining companies enjoyed five years ago.
If base metal prices continue to fall, watch as continued cost cutting results in an ever-increasing number of large tailings dam spills. The situation for the Brazilian people living around the now contaminated Doce River with toxic laden heavy metal mud is quite dire. The ramifications of the spill will last for decades.
The mining industry’s trend to go from big to gargantuan sized mines and tailings dams, is just a response to the Falling EROI (Energy Returned On Investment) of oil. By increasing to bigger and bigger mining projects, these companies are trying to offset overall rising costs by implementing “Economies of scale.”
Economies of scale is the ability to lower unit costs by increasing the size or volume of production. While this may work in the short-term, what happens when the highly leveraged financial system finally cracks and disintegrates? It will cause a great deal of mining company bankruptcies. As more and more mining companies going bankrupt, who will continue to monitor and take care of the hundreds or thousands of large tailings dams across the world?
Unfortunately, will be the ultimate cost of the falling EROI. By cheating the falling EROI, the benefits were brought forward, but the costs will be left behind.
Here are some more images of the aftermath of the Samarco Tailings Dam collapse, courtesy of TelesurTV: Biggest Ecolgocial Disater In Brazil’s History:
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