• 40 dead, 150 missing: Search underway after Brazilian mine dam bursts

    By: Manoella Macedo

    Updated:

    BRUMADINHO, Minas Gerais - Forty people are dead and approximately 150 others are still missing as crews continue to work as they search for survivors and contain the damage after a mine dam burst in southeastern Brazil, according to Globo News.

    The dam at the Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, a small town in southeastern Brazil, burst on Friday afternoon, causing an avalanche of mud and debris, burying part of a rural community in the area. 

    What is being called yet another major tragedy at the hands of Vale S.A., one of Brazil's biggest mining companies, comes just three years after a similar disaster occured in the region of Mariana, just 54 miles southeast of this week's dam burst.

    At around 1:30 p.m., Brumadinho's Mayor's office sent out an alert via social media for residents to avoid the area of Rio Paraopeba, the river where the Feijão mine runs off. Reporters trying to get to the area were met with roadblocks.

    A nearby open air park and museum, Inhotim, announced they would be closing down at around 3:30 p.m. as a precaution due to the dam rupture. Inhotim is one of the biggest travel destinations in Minas Gerais and attracts thousands of tourists year-round.

    According to officials, the mine in Brumadinho had been deactivated since 2015. Fábio Schwartsman, president of Vale, says the company has no idea what could have caused the dam to burst.

    "It is with great sadness we declare this an enourmous tragedy that took us completely by surprise," said Schwartsman. "I am completely devastated by what happened."

    At least nine people have died as a result of the incident and firefighters estimate 345 people are currently missing. 

    On Saturday morning, Vale released a list containing 412 names of missing people in the region, citing 322 workers and 90 others were in the region at the time of the accident. At this time, emergency crews are working with a running tally of nearly 300 missing people. 

    As of 4 p.m. local time, 176 people were found alive, and out of those, 23 have been hospitalized.

    At the time of the incident, there were more than 400 people working at the dam. In total, 100 military personnel are working alongside first responders.

    Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro lamented the tragedy and is expected to visit the site on Saturday afternoon.

    "Our biggest concern right now is to help the victims of this great tragedy," the president told El País. "After Mariana, we did not expect another (tragedy), but unfortunately we have this problem now."

    The administration has declared a state of emergency and will continue to work with local officials to help out victims and search for missing people. A military emergency contingency unit has been sent to the area to help with rescue efforts.

    Vale activated an emergency response as well as their plan for dam rupture containement. 

    "At this moment, the top priority for Vale is to preserve and protect the life of our workers and members of the community," a Vale representative said in a statement. Shares for the company dropped 8 percent on Friday.

    Questions still remain surrounding what actually caused the dam to break, but the incident certainly ignited yet another heated debate over the current administration's approach to environmental protection and management. 

    President Bolsonaro, who took office on Jan. 1, 2019, has already shown interest in loosening environmental protection regulations and has even considered closing down the Environment ministry.

    While Vale representatives say the dam was fully equipped with an emergency alarm system, both workers and community members said they did not hear any sirens go off before the mud wave engulfed the town.

    Envionrmentalists and activists contested authorities as well as Vale's claims that the dam was properly licensed and safety protocols were being followed. They claim that, for years, workers and the population in the region had reported problems with the dam, which was built with the cheapest and unsafest materials and technique.

    Ibama, the nation's institution of the environment and national resources, slapped a RS$250 million fine (around US$66 million) on Vale, citing a "socio-environmental catastrophe".

    There are curenetly 450 dams across the state of Minas Gerais and at least 22 of them are not guraranteed to remain stable.

    The environmental disaster that occured in 2015 in Mariana killed 19 people and affected the lives of thousands after a dam owned and operated by Samarco S.A. (a joint venture owned by Vale and BHP Bilton) created a tsunami-like wave of mud and debris that took over the river bed of the Rio Doce and ran off into the coast of Espirito Santo. The damage to the ecosystem is felt until today, where mining debris still sits in the bottom of the ocean floor, posing a risk to the biggest coral reef formation in the south Altantic.

    Three years later, victims of the tragedy are still waiting for their homes to be rebuilt after about 39 million cubic meters of mud ravaged the region and displaced more than 400 families.

    Among hundreds of celebrities, Gisele Bundchen, outspoken environmental activist and supermodel, expressed her sadness towards the disaster in Brumadinho.

    "It's very sad that a disaster like this has happened again," Bundchen wrote on an Instagram post. "My heart is broken and I'm praying for all the families affected by the tragedy in Brumadinho-BR."

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