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A dam holding back iron mining waste burst in Brazil—again

People wait for information about missing friends and relatives who disappeared after a dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, on Jan. 26, 2019.
AP Photo/Leo Correa
People wait for information about missing friends and relatives who disappeared after a dam collapse in Brumadinho, Brazil, on Jan. 26, 2019.
By Zoë Schlanger
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A dam collapsed Friday near Brumadinho, Brazil, leaving at least 60 people dead and hundreds missing. About a hundred survivors were found as of Saturday afternoon, but the possibility of finding more beneath feet of mud had grown “minimal,” according to the governor of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, where Brumadinho is located, the Guardian reports.

The dam, owned by mining company Vale, was holding back tailings from iron ore mining. It collapsed as some workers were eating lunch in a nearby restaurant that was quickly buried under mud.

Leo Drumond/Nitro via AP
A structure lays in ruins after a dam collapsed near Brumadinho, Brazil, on Jan. 25, 2019.

The disaster is a repeat nightmare for the region: Another mining dam burst three years earlier, just 75 miles (121 km) away in the same state of Minas Gerais, killing 19 people and causing what is considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. That dam, near the city of Mariana, was owned jointly by Vale and the Australian multinational BHP Billiton.

On Nov. 5, 2015, millions of liters of mining waste from extracting iron ore were unleashed from that dam, burying close to 400 homes. Documents reported by the Guardian suggest the dam’s owners knew about the possibility of a catastrophic collapse as much as six months earlier.

AP Photo/Andre Penner
Several feet of mud washed through Brumadinho, Brazil, after the dam collapse on Jan. 25, 2019.
AP Photo/Leo Correa
On Jan. 26, 2019, man stands in the debris of his home, which was destroyed after a dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil a day earlier.

The Brazilian environmental agency Ibama has fined Vale (link in Portuguese) $66 million for violations caused by Friday’s collapse, including contaminating the local water supply, making the area unfit for habitation, and for causing pollution that “may result in damage to human health.”

AP Photo/Andre Penner
Rescue worker look for victims near Brumadinho, Brazil, on Jan. 26, 2019.

Newly inaugurated Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro called the collapse a “grave tragedy” on Twitter yesterday (link in Portuguese). Bolsonaro ran his presidential campaign on a radically pro-industry platform, promising to weaken environmental protections in the Amazon rainforest and to open more indigenous lands to mining.

Bolsonaro likened indigenous reserves in the Amazon to “chickenpox” and promised that “there won’t be a square centimeter demarcated as an indigenous reserve” under his leadership.

This post was updated to reflect the death toll rose to at least 60. 

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