Brazil's slow-motion environmental catastrophe unfolds
Toxic mudslide from collapse of dams spreads as BHP Billington fined $66m
Nine people are now confirmed dead, and a further 19 remain unaccounted for as a slow-motion environmental catastrophe continues to unfold following the collapse of two mining dams in Brazil’s mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais.
Eight days after the town of Bento Rodrigues was swept away by 50m cubic metres of toxic mud, a slow-moving tide of toxic iron-ore residue is oozing downriver, polluting the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents as it makes its way to the ocean.
Brazil’s national water agency, ANA, has warned that the presence of arsenic, zinc, copper and mercury now present in the Rio Doce make the water untreatable for human consumption. Already the lack of oxygen and high temperatures caused by the pollutants has killed off much of the aquatic life along a 500km stretch of the river.
“It is a tragedy of enormous proportions,” Marilene Ramos, president of Ibama, the federal environmental agency, said. “We have thousands of hectares of protected areas destroyed and the total extinction of all the biodiversity along this stretch of the river.”
The mine and dams are operated by Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between the Anglo-Australian mining group BHP Billiton, the world’s biggest mining company, and the Brazilian iron ore giant Vale. Shares in BHP Billiton, a FTSE-100 company and therefore a key holding of pension funds around the world – have been battered. Some £8bn has been wiped off the value of the company as its shares in the UK and Australia have slumped by an average of 14%.