Brazil's mining tragedy and the dangers of storing iron ore waste

November 25, 2015 | Environment
The Samarco disaster: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff flies over the Mariana region | Photo: Stuckert Filho

Brazil suffered one of the worst environmental tragedies in the country's history. A mining dam located in Minas Gerais collapsed and spilled 196 million cubic feet (60 million cubic meters) of mud into rivers, communities, and the ocean.

The Samarco iron ore operation is a joint venture between BHP Billiton and Vale. On the 5th November, a tailings dam broke and contaminated waters of the rivers that flow towards the Atlantic Ocean.

At least 11 people lost their lives, the water supply was cut, hundreds of thousands were directly affected by the dam failure. The Samarco disaster killed an undetermined number of fish and destroyed some of the best surf breaks Brazil has to offer. Boca do Rio Doce, near Regencia, is only an example.

The orange liquid traveled more than 600 kilometers and reached the beaches of the state of Espirito Santo, north of Rio de Janeiro. The toxic mud is already affecting multiple marine species, but its effects will be felt for, at least, three decades.

Iron ores are rocks that, when heated, will transform into metallic iron, an essential resource for the world's steel and iron industries. Tailings are detritus from iron ore plants mixed with mud and water.

In Samarco's case, the volume of tailings grew from 5 million cubic meters to 55 million cubic meters in three years, which might explain why the dam collapsed.

Samarco has already been fined 66 million dollars, but the iron ore miners will also have to pay an extra 265 million dollars for cleanup, compensation, and repairs. It's the biggest environmental disaster in the history of Brazil, and one of the worst ever in the industry.

The amount of contaminated water spilled is equivalent to 187 oil tankers. Brazil's mining tragedy exposed the dangers of storing mining waste in eco-sensitive regions.

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