Several of the omissions that led to the Mariana tragedy were repeated in Brumadinho, in particular the absence of efficient evacuation plans, and the fact that the tailings dam’s drainage route was located just a few meters away from populated areas and Vale’s own dining hall. Most of the Brumadinho victims were in fact Vale employees and service providers from the Córrego do Feijão mine. In both tragedies, the responsible companies omitted information about the true state of the dams. In the case of Brumadinho, the National Mining Agency (Agência Nacional de Mineirão – ANM) indicated that Vale was fully aware of the sustainability issues, and failed to report them in time for the agency to order the preventive suspension of mining and engineering activities in the area surrounding the dam.
In Minas Gerais alone, there were six other mining dam failures before the tragedies of Mariana and Brumadinho. The frequency with which this type of event occurs is due to a mining model in which corporations dictate the rules of the game governing environmental permitting, inspection, damage management, and reparations. As for oversight, the companies themselves are responsible for commissioning feasibility and impact studies of dams in Brazil, with no state institutions capable of assessing the suitability of those studies. Indeed, in his first interview after the collapse in Brumadinho, the then CEO of Vale S.A. stressed that a geotechnical report from the German engineering company Tüv Süd had certified the stability of the dam’s structures and, under this argument, Vale has sought to limit its liability.
In turn, Tüv Süd’s management in Brazil has tried to attribute responsibility for what happened to engineering operations conducted by Vale, such as the movement of machinery, construction of dammed water release pipelines, and other operations inconsistent with the German company’s safety recommendations. A few days after the dam broke in Brumadinho, and in view of the evidence that Tüv Süd had certified the stability of a dam that was on the verge of collapse, its directors contacted Vale in writing to retract opinions that had certified the stability of other dams in the state of Minas Gerais. Some media outlets have also published reports revealing the exchange of emails by officials from both companies, in which Vale executives allegedly pressured Tüv Süd to certify the viability of the dam at the Córrego do Feijão mine. Between the different versions maintained by Vale and Tüv Süd, the truth is that both companies had full knowledge of the sustainability issues with the dam that ultimately collapsed on January 25, 2019.
In addition to the clear corporate irresponsibility and the non-existence of an institutional framework capable of adequately supervising dams in Brazil, it is increasingly evident that the mining model under which the State and society submit to the designs of extractive companies has remained unchanged. Vale’s omnipotence in Minas Gerais is such that on October 25, 2019, the State Environmental Policy Council of Minas Gerais authorized Samarco to resume operations at the Germano iron ore mine—in the same place where the dam had collapsed in Mariana four years earlier—without any measures having been taken to provide reparations to the affected families. The Germano dam is the largest in all of Brazil, with 129.5 million cubic meters of mining waste, or more than twice the amount of sludge discharged on Nov. 5, 2015. Although the company is not dumping mining waste in this dam because it will be using a new pit in its operations, the risk inherent in removing soil during new operations must be considered.
As if Vale’s ability to dictate the rules of the game in the licensing and oversight of dams were not enough, its ability to evade justice has become evident in the aftermath of the Mariana tragedy, attributable to its joint venture Samarco. To date, not a single person has been convicted and Samarco has managed to suspend or simply not pay environmental fines imposed by the Public Prosecution Service, federal authorities, and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. The company has been litigating every penny of compensation claimed in court and contesting the fines imposed by the oversight bodies. Out of court, it has disbursed some compensation payments to a limited number of victims through RENOVA, a private foundation created by the responsible companies after they reached an agreement with representatives of the federal government and the state governments of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo. While the victims of the Mariana tragedy have been waiting for more than four years for a final court decision, there are plenty of other examples of how difficult it is to hold Vale legally accountable for the socio-environmental damage it and its subsidiaries have caused.
To give an example, after several years of pursuing legal actions against the company Gusa Nordeste, a Vale S.A. preferential supplier company in Açailândia, state of Maranhão, 21 families from the Piquiá de Baixo neighborhood obtained an appeals court ruling in February 2015 ordering the state and the company to pay compensation for the pollution caused by the company’s steelworks complex. Fifteen years have passed since the initial complaints were raised by the communities living with the industrial waste. International human rights bodies and civil society organizations have spoken out, final court judgments have been issued, and agreements have been signed with local authorities to relocate the residents of Piquiá de Baixo; but the victims of the pollution have not yet been compensated and continue to live under calamitous socio-environmental conditions, suffering from a variety of health problems.
Given the climate of corporate impunity in Brazil, thousands of victims of the Mariana tragedy have decided to file legal actions for compensation against BHP (co-owner of Samarco S.A.) in the courts of the United Kingdom, where the company is registered. More than 200,000 affected individuals, approximately 600 companies, 25 municipalities and the Archdiocese of Mariana joined in the extraterritorial action. The parent company, however, has requested that the proceedings be halted, claiming that the action in the United Kingdom duplicates those in Brazil and that the dispute should be heard and decided in the Brazilian courts. The decision on jurisdiction should be issued only after a hearing scheduled for June 9, 2020.
In addition, in October 2019 a group of victims of the environmental crime that took place in Brumadinho filed a criminal complaint with the German authorities against Tüv Süd and some of its officials who were involved in preparing the opinions on the viability of the Córrego do Feijão dam.Print