Bento Rodrigues dam disaster

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Bento Rodrigues dam disaster
Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais (22828956680).jpg
The village of Bento Rodrigues after the disaster.
Date 5 November 2015 (2015-11-05)
Location Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Coordinates 20°12′23.4″S 43°28′01.6″W / 20.206500°S 43.467111°W / -20.206500; -43.467111Coordinates: 20°12′23.4″S 43°28′01.6″W / 20.206500°S 43.467111°W / -20.206500; -43.467111
Type Dam failure
Cause Unknown[1]
Participants Samarco (Vale, BHP Billiton)
Deaths 17+[2][3]
Non-fatal injuries 16+[1]
Missing 2[2]
Property damage two villages affected,[1] around 200 homes destroyed[4]

The Bento Rodrigues dam disaster occurred on 5 November 2015, when an iron ore tailings dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure, resulting in flooding that destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues, killing at least 17 people.[4][3][1]

The failure of the Bento Rodrigues dam has been described as the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history, as around 60 million cubic meters of iron waste flowed into the Doce River, causing toxic brown mudflows to pollute the river and beaches near the mouth when they reached the Atlantic Ocean 17 days later.[5][6][7][8] The disaster sparked a humanitarian crisis as hundreds were displaced and cities along the Doce River suffered water shortages.

The total impact of the disaster, including the reason for failure and the environmental consequences, are officially under investigation and currently still unclear.[9] The owner of the Bento Rodrigues dam, Samarco, was subject to extensive litigation and government sanctions. In 2016, charges of homicide were filed against 21 executives of Vale and BHP Billiton, the companies that own Samarco as a joint venture. Controversy over the investigation grew after exposure of a 2013 report indicating structural issues in the dam.[10][11]

Bento Rodrigues dam disaster is located in Brazil
Bento Rodrigues dam disaster
Location of Bento Rodrigues in Brazil


The Fundão and Santarém tailings dams were constructed and owned by Samarco Mineração SA, a mining company, in Mariana, a municipality 67 kilometers (42 mi) south-east of Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The tailings dams were built by Samarco to accommodate the waste resulting from the extraction of iron ore taken from extensive Germano mine, located in the Mariana district of Santa Rita Durão. The Fundão dam was constructed in the hills near the village and subdistrict of Bento Rodrigues, located 14 kilometers (8.7 mi) north of Mariana city.


At approximately 3:30pm on the afternoon of 5 November, 2015, the Fundão dam presented a leak. Immediately, a team of outsourced employees was sent to the scene, and they tried to mitigate the leak by deflating part of the reservoir. At around 4:20pm, a rupture occurred, releasing a large volume of toxic sludge into the Santarém river valley. Bento Rodrigues, which lies 2.5 kilometers (1.6 mi) away in the valley below the dam, was almost entirely flooded by the cascade of toxic water and mud. Other villages and districts that are located in the Gualaxo river valley, also in the region of Mariana, were hit with minor damage. Bento Rodrigues is situated on unpaved back roads, which are the only available means of land travel between it and the other districts and the seat of the municipality. The village's precarious access location made Bento Rodrigues completely inaccessible by road which hindered firefighters' access to the rescue, and the only option for transport into or out of the location was via helicopter. There was a school in the area where the flood occurred, and the teachers were able to remove the students before school. Additionally, Samarco and the neighboring communities did not have a contingency plan or evacuation routes in the event of dam failure, which would have allowed the residents to evacuate in a timely manner to more secure regions. Around 600 people were evacuated to Mariana, and troops of the Brazilian Armed Forces were deployed to assist.[1][4]


Satellite images of Bento Rodrigues and the Germano mine before and after the disaster, displaying the flooding and pollution of the Doce River.
An abandoned car caught in the mudslide amidst the ruins of Bento Rodrigues.
Satellite image of the mouth of the Doce River in Linhares, Espírito Santo, when tailings reached the southern Altantic Ocean.

According to a United Nations report, the tailing slurry travelled 620km downriver, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Nineteen people were killed, "Entire fish populations – at least 11 tons – were killed immediately when the slurry buried them or clogged their gills", and "the force of the mudflow destroyed 1 469 hectares of riparian forest.[12]

Contamination of Rio Doce[edit]

At around 6:30pm on the day of 5 November, the tailings of iron ore reached the Rio Doce. The river basin has a drainage area of about 86,715 square kilometers, with 86% in Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. In total, the river covers 230 municipalities that use its bed for subsistence.

According to biologist and ecologist Andrew Ruschi, who studies marine biology at the Estação Biologia Marinha Augusto Ruschi in Santa Cruz, Espírito Santo, the waste will take at least decades to dilute to levels anywhere near previous levels.[citation needed]

The waste also reached the hydroelectric power plant of Risoleta Neves in Santa Cruz do Escalvado within 100 kilometers of Mariana. According to the company that runs the power plant, its functioning has not been affected.

On 9 November, the city of Governador Valadares stopped the water intakes due to the mud on the Rio Doce. The next day, a State of Public Calamity was decreed in response to the water shortage in the city. According to analyses carried out in the city, the mud contains greater than acceptable concentrations of heavy metals, substances harmful to health, such as arsenic, lead and mercury.[13]

There are concerns about contamination of the nearby Rio Gualaxo do Norte (pt), a tributary of the Doce River, due to the toxic substances stored at the facility.[1]

Contamination of southern Atlantic ocean[edit]

On 22 November, the waste reached the Atlantic Ocean.[14] The toxic mud is spreading across the Espírito Santo coast, where cities closed down access to beaches.

On 7 January 2016, the waste reached the southern Bahia littoral zone.[15] Environmentalists follow closely the impact to the Abrolhos Marine National Park wildlife. The park is considered of vital importance to the Brazilian ecosystem since it hosts the major marine biodiversity in the whole southern Atlantic ocean.[16]


Investigation of the causes[edit]

On the first quarter of November 2015, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies and the state chambers of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo created, each one, a special commission to follow the case, and the actions taken. According to the press, many of the deputies that composed such commissions had received donations from Vale to finance their campaigns. Such donations, summing up to R$ 2.6 millions are legal, and were reported by the then-candidates to the Brazilian Election Justice. However, it has raised high criticism that the deputies' participation are clearly biased.[17][18]

In January 2016, the leakage of internal documents from 14 months before the disaster revealed that Samarco had been warned about the possibility of the dam collapses.[19] Joaquim Pimenta de Ávila, an engineer who was regarded as one of the foremost tailing dam engineers in Brazil, had been contracted by Samarco between 2008 and 2012 to design and oversee the construction of the Fundão dam. From 2013, Ávila was hired part-time as a consultant to inspect the dam, and a technical report he wrote from September 2014 lists severe structural problems on the dam (in the form of cracks) and measures to mitigate them, the main one being the construction of a buttress. Samarco claims to have implemented all the recommendations from Ávila, and that dam was in the process of being heightened when the landfill reached its maximum capacity and began to leak as the reservoir had already reached its limit point. However, Samarco failed to comment specifically about the buttress, and claims that it was never warned about the severity of the structural damages, nor about imminence of a catastrophic failure.

Sanctions to Samarco[edit]

Samarco president Ricardo Vescovi

The Minas Gerais government suspended Samarco's activities immediately after the disaster.[20]

Next, the Brazilian government fined Samarco in R$250 million (US$66.3million) for the incident.[21][22] The fine is preliminary and could be higher if the two companies were found guilty of water pollution and damages.

In January 2016, the Brazilian government and Samarco reached the agreement in a fine of R$20 billion (US$4.8 billion).[23] The penalty does not include compensation to people affected by the disaster, and the cost of recovering the polluted area.

Legal consequences[edit]

In October 2016 it was reported that Brazilian prosecutors had filed homicide charges against 21 people including top executives of Samarco's owners: BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals and petroleum company headquartered in Melbourne, Australia and the world's largest mining company, and Vale SA, the third-largest mining company in the world and the Public Eye People's Worst Company award winner of 2012.[4][24] Vale and BHP Billiton own Samarco as a joint venture, with each company possessing a 50% stake.[25]



The city immediately began a campaign to collect donations for the homeless, stressing the urgent need for donations of toothbrushes, towels, glasses, cutlery, disposable dishes and especially drinking water. Also a bank account was opened to receive donations in cash.[26] Additionally, all municipal events since the day of the disaster until 16 November have been canceled. The note from the Mayor's Office said that "at this point, the city of Mariana is focused on rescue work and support to hit".

The Federal Government, through the Minister's Chief of Staff, Jaques Wagner, put the Federal forces at the disposal of the State of Minas Gerais. The Minister came into contact with the Governor, Fernando Pimentel, to put the Federal forces. Jaques Wagner announced President Dilma Rousseff on accident before loading it back from a trip to Brazil to Brasília.[27]

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mariana said: "We express our most heartfelt sympathy to the families who have had their homes and property destroyed and those who mourn the death of their loved ones, victims of this disaster of incalculable proportions. The point is to unite efforts to minimise the distress and suffering of all those affected by this tragedy. We call upon our communities to provide support to victims. [...]. We pray to God to strengthen and comfort, with your generous love, all who have been affected by this accident". In addition to at diocese, the Diocese of Itabira and Three Lakes and the East Regional II CNBB, comprising the territories of the States of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, also issued notes of solidarity with those affected by tragedy.

A football match between Cruzeiro and São Paulo on 8 November in Belo Horizonte hosted a collection of resources to help the victims.[28]


A report by experts of the United Nations contradicted repeated statements by the Brazilian government and the involved mining companies that the released chemicals were harmless.[29] Instead, the report indicated that the released mud contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals and also criticized the slow release of information.[29] Although heavy metals were found, the difference in concentration was found not to differ significantly from that found in the 2010 geologic survey. The report said the tailings that entered the Rio Doce were composed of clay and silt from the processing of earth containing iron ore, which is naturally abundant in the region.[30]

The French spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Romain Nadal expressed their condolences, "We were told with emotion of the disruption of the mining dams in the State of Minas Gerais in the Southeast region," said the spokesman.

North American band Pearl Jam, who performed in Belo Horizonte on 20 November, promised to donate the proceeds of the concert to victims of the disaster. Singer Eddie Vedder also gave a speech calling for harsh punishments to be applied to Samarco and others involved.[31]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f "Dam burst at mining site devastates Brazilian town". Al Jazeera English. AFP and Reuters. 6 November 2015. Retrieved 6 November 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Cristiane Silva (2015-12-16). "Corpo é reconhecido e número de vítimas da tragédia de Mariana sobe para 17" [Corpse is identified and number of casualties in the tragedy in Mariana is updated to 17] (in Portuguese). Estado de Minas. Retrieved 2015-12-22. 
  3. ^ a b "Brazil dam collapse death toll rises to 17, BHP says". BBC. 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  4. ^ a b c d Willis, Andrew; Stringer, David (7 November 2015). "Dam Owned by Iron-Ore Giants Bursts, Flooding Brazil Valley". Bloomberg. Retrieved 7 November 2015. 
  5. ^ "Boechat: Mariana é a maior tragédia ambiental do Brasil". TV UOL (in Portuguese). 9 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  6. ^ "Acidente na barragem de Samarco é "a maior tragédia ambiental" do Brasil". Rede Angola (in Portuguese). 21 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  7. ^ "Sebastião Salgado: "É a maior tragédia ambiental do Brasil. Mas tem solução"". El País (in Portuguese). 19 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  8. ^ Rifai, Ryan (22 November 2015). "Toxic sludge reaches Atlantic after Brazil dams burst". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  9. ^ "Anger rises as Brazilian mine disaster threatens river and sea with toxic mud". The Guardian. 2015-11-22. Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  10. ^ Dunckley, Mathew (13 November 2015). "BHP Billiton rebuts Samarco dam report". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  11. ^ "Brazil's mining tragedy: was it a preventable disaster?". The Guardian. 2015-11-25. Retrieved 2015-12-24. 
  12. ^ United Nations, Mine tailings storage: Safety is no accident, Report summary , circa 2015. Accessed June 2018.
  13. ^ "Arsenic and mercury found in river days after Brazil dam burst". The Guardian. 2015-11-25. Retrieved 2017-08-08. 
  14. ^ "Samarco mine tragedy: Toxic mud from Brazil mine spill reaches Atlantic Ocean". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 22 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  15. ^ Hédio Júnior (2016-01-07). "Sinais de lama chegam à Bahia, perto de Abrolhos e Trancoso; Ibama notifica Samarco" [Remains of mud reach Bahia near Abrolhos and Trancoso; Ibana notifies Samarco] (in Portuguese). Estado de Minas. Retrieved 2016-01-08. 
  16. ^ "Parque Nacional Marinho dos Abrolhos" [Abrolhos Marine National Park] (in Portuguese). Brazilian Ministry of Tourism. Retrieved 2016-01-08. 
  17. ^ "Vale doou à metade dos deputados da Comissão do Rio Doce. Empresa doou R$388,7 mil para os deputados estaduais da Comissão" [Vale has donated to half of the deputies of the commission] (in Portuguese). G1. 2015-11-09. 
  18. ^ UOL Notícias: Deputados que vão apurar tragédia em Mariana receberam R$ 2 milhões da Vale
  19. ^ Paul Kiernan (2016-01-17). "Samarco Warned of Problems at Dam, Engineer Says". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  20. ^ "Brazil mining company Samarco suspended over dams burst". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. 9 November 2015. Retrieved 11 November 2015. 
  21. ^ "Vale and BHP fined for deadly Brazilian dam burst". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. 13 November 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  22. ^ "Eine schlammbraun gewordene Lebensader" [A mud brown become lifeline] (in German). 27 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  23. ^ "Samarco, Brazil move closer on $4.8B dam-disaster settlement". CNBC. 2016-01-22. Retrieved 2016-01-22. 
  24. ^ Rapoza, Kenneth (30 January 2012). "'Worst Company In The World' Award Goes To..." Forbes. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  25. ^ "Mining giants face homicide charges over Brazil dam disaster". RT. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  26. ^ "Prefeitura de Mariana :: Comunicado sobre as doações de donativos" (in Portuguese). Prefeitura Municipal de Mariana. Archived from the original on 9 November 2015. Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  27. ^ "Governo garante apoio à cidade mineira de Mariana, inundada por lama após rompimento de barragens". Portal Brasil (in Portuguese). Retrieved 13 November 2015. 
  28. ^ "Cruzeiro arrecadará doações para vítimas de tragédia em Mariana". O Tempo (in Portuguese). Belo Horizonte. 6 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 
  29. ^ a b Paul Kiernan (25 November 2015). "Brazil Dam's Failure Flooded Region With Toxic Waste, U.N. Report Says". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 27 November 2015. 
  30. ^ Stephen Letts (26 November 2015). "BHP Billiton denies UN claims Brazil dam disaster mud is 'toxic', damage size of 20,000 Olympic pools". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 28 September 2017. 
  31. ^ "Pearl Jam Calls for Justice in Mariana and Promises to Donate Revenue from Tickets to Victims". Folha de S.Paulo. 23 November 2015. Retrieved 30 November 2015. 

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