Reconstructing the tragedy at Mariana, the largest environmental disaster in Brazilian historyConsuelo Dieguez
Translated by Flora Thomson-Deveaux
THE STORY OF THE PEOPLE
On November 5th, 2015, the gigantic tailings dam at an iron ore mine belonging to Samarco, a company controlled by two of the largest mining firms in the world – Vale, from Brazil, and the Anglo-Australian multinational Billiton – broke in full force over the tiny town of Bento Rodrigues, in the district of Mariana, in the state of Minas Gerais.
When the dam, known as “Fundão,” crumbled at 3:30 p.m., letting loose a mixture of mud and heavy metals in terrifying volumes, Paula Geralda Alves was preparing seedlings for reforestation for Samarco, on a ranch near the village; Eliene dos Santos, the principal of the school in Bento Rodrigues, had just shut the glass door of the school, having sent off students’ documents to a neighboring town; and Reinaldo Caetano was looking contentedly at the water tank at his mother’s house, which he had just filled with water brought from the creek. Around 200 miles away in Governador Valadares, Sandro Faria Henger, the owner of a truck dealership, was talking on the phone with a client. A bit farther on, closer to the sea, on the fringes of the city of Resplendor, Dejanira Krenak was puffing on her pipe on the riverbank in the village of the Krenak people. Downstream, in Colatina, in the state of Espírito Santo, photographer Edson Negrelli was taking pictures in his studio. In the hamlet of Regência, community leader Carlos Sangália was strolling along the wave-lapped white sands of an environmental protection zone, observing sea turtle nests.
None of them could imagine that, at that precise moment, the world they knew so well was about to disappear. The collapse of the Samarco dam became the gravest environmental tragedy in the history of Brazil, and the most serious accident – the only one of its kind – in the history of mining anywhere in the world. Nineteen people died in the first half hour alone. But in the days to come, the lives of hundreds of thousands of other people living along the 400 miles of the path carved out by the mud would be affected forever. These seven are just a few of them.
Paula Geralda Alves woke up at 6:30 in the morning, brewed coffee to take to her coworkers – nine people in all, assigned to Brandt Meio Ambiente, a subcontractor hired by Samarco to develop reforestation seedlings – and headed over to work on her small motorcycle. The sky that morning was a gauzy blue the likes of which she hadn’t seen in a long time. Alves, age 36, had lived in Bento Rodrigues all her life. Only around 600 souls called it home, and so it was hardly surprising that they all knew each other.
The 18th-century settlement was one of the oldest in the state – its name paid tribute to a frontiersman who had ventured out into those lands – and home to one of the first churches in Minas Gerais, the Igreja de São Bento. “Bento,” as it was known, was a village lying between two creeks crossed by small bridges that led to the neighboring town of Santa Rita Durão and the highway to the city of Mariana. Bento’s streets were paved and its houses were solidly built. Many of its inhabitants worked for Samarco or the companies contracted by it. The rest worked on their own small farms. For those who lived in Bento, Mariana, a 40-minute drive away, was a big city. Most only went there when they had to take care of paperwork.
In the warehouse at Brandt, alongside her coworkers, Alves went over the work safety regulations – a daily routine stipulated by the mining company at all of its operational sites, even third-party ones – and set to preparing seedlings to be planted in areas damaged by mineral extraction. Around 3:30 p.m., the radio on one of the Samarco pickups started broadcasting an urgent call on channel 4, the frequency used for high alerts. Alarmed, the group gathered around the vehicle and heard a panicky, confused voice saying that the Fundão dam had burst. After a bewildered moment, Alves declared: “I don’t know about you all, but I’m going to let my folks know,” and got on her motorcycle. As she took off as fast as she could, she heard her comrades shouting for her to come back – she wouldn’t be able to make it in time. The sea of mud was already blooming at the peak of the mountain, a mile and a half from Bento, moving at a speed of 9 mph. While they sped up the hill to protect themselves from the deluge, they saw Alves head down into the village. It would take just over ten minutes for the bridge that she had just crossed to be swept away by the avalanche. With a hand clamped on her horn, Alves rode down a few streets, yelling as she went: “Run for it, the dam broke!” As they came out of their homes and looked up at the mountains, residents spotted a monstrous wave of dust and mud lumbering at full tilt in the direction of the village, giving off the roar of a massive waterfall. At that point in the afternoon, around 300 people were there in Bento. Now, they raced to high ground as fast as their legs could carry them. Each did what they could, while all of them tried to help one another. A number of old folks, children, and people with limited mobility living close to the river were piled into the back of an open-top truck that was picking up trash that day. Cars took off packed with passengers, picking up whoever they ran into on the way out. Those without a ride tried to escape on foot. As the mud drew ever closer, one exhausted young woman sank to her knees on the asphalt. Later, she would say that she thought that if death was inevitable, then it no longer made sense to run. A group of older people passed her on the way up. That was what made her snap out of her torpor. If she had the slightest chance, she’d cling to it.
Eliene dos Santos had arrived early at the low-slung, well-maintained school where she served as the principal. During the morning, the spacious, amply lit rooms were occupied by primary schoolers. The afternoon was reserved for 5th through 8th graders. Since she lived in the lowest-lying part of Bento, on her lunch break the principal tended to eat at the school and then head out to nurse her son, who spent the day with her mother-in-law. That day, since she’d had a busy morning, she was only able to see the baby after 2:30 p.m. Around three, she went back to the school, organized documents from the students’ health plans, and took them to the bus stop. A cousin of hers was waiting to head over to Santa Rita Durão, and Santos asked her to hand the papers over to the ticket-taker, who would then pass them on to someone else, who would take them to the dentist. Santos went back to the school, closed the glass door and headed over to her office. She’d only taken a few steps when she heard her name. Her husband, clearly frightened, was calling out to her. When she saw him, she realized that something terrible had happened. Wiley dos Santos, known as Lelei, was pale, terror in his face. Thinking that something had happened to their son, she ran over to the door. There, her husband told her that she needed to get everyone out of the school. The dam had broken and its contents were bearing down on the village. She shouted for a teacher to help her warn the students, and the woman ran over to the 6th- and 7th-grade classrooms, while Santos went to warn the 5th- and 8th-graders. “Everyone out, everyone get to high ground. The dam broke,” she bellowed, going to stand watch at the door until the school had emptied out.
Only then did she run. She was already getting ready to head out in her husband’s car when she realized that the last room in the building had a small group of students in a booster class who hadn’t been warned yet. She scrambled back desperately, almost breathless, opened the classroom door, and, in a quavering voice, told everyone to get out. Then, the unexpected happened. The children, terrified, froze in place. Santos tried to speak again, but her mouth was so dry that nothing came out. With a superhuman effort, she let out a scream that shook the students from their trance: “We need to get out now, or we’re going to die!” The children ran. The 60 people present in the school evacuated within five minutes. Since Samarco hadn’t drilled residents about emergency situations, the process was completely improvised. As she reached her car again, Santos spotted the bus to Santa Rita that she’d meant to send the students’ papers on. The children packed into the vehicle, and it took off.
From her vantage point, the principal could see the avalanche swelling over the banks of Santarém Creek. The sound was so deafening that she had the impression that hundreds of helicopters were flying overhead. Along with the mud came a stench of rotting trash. In the car, she asked fearfully after her son. Her husband said that he’d spoken with his mother on the phone, and she’d said that she was fleeing with the baby. Santos couldn’t believe it, and wanted to go to her mother-in-law’s house to make sure. When the car reached the highest ground in Bento, her husband asked her to get out and promised that he’d go see if his mother and the baby had gotten out safely. Santos obeyed. She watched the car pulling away, and saw her husband cross the bridge on the way to his mother’s house. The muddy wave began to swallow a part of the village. The principal sat down and wept. Her husband was stranded now, perhaps with their son.
On that morning, Reinaldo Caetano had made up his mind: he was going to fill his mother’s water tank so she wouldn’t have to carry water from the pump. On the land by the riverside, there were other houses as well: his, where he lived with his wife and son; the house belonging to his 80-year-old father, long separated from his mother; and his sister’s. Other relatives lived nearby, an uncle among them. Caetano, a local farmer, took advantage of the fact that his mother had gone out to set up the surprise: when she got back, she’d find her tank full.
Caetano was feeling pretty pleased with himself. He had just bought a mattress and boxspring with money he’d been saving up for a dental operation (he wanted to replace a few teeth). Thinking that the mattress would make his wife happy, he prioritized the purchase. He’d met Jéssica in Mariana and brought her to Bento, where she’d gotten off crack and started settling into a domestic routine. They had a son, Iago, now six years old. It was just after 3:30 p.m. when he judged that his work was done. He doffed his baseball cap and looked over at the water tank. A second later, he spotted “a big old cloud of dust” puffing over the mountaintop. Then someone charging down the end of the street shouted that they should all run for it: the dam had broken. Caetano told his wife to get inside and went to go find his father.
When Jéssica saw the wave of mud rolling down towards the valley, she grabbed her son and yelled that they needed to get to high ground. “If we stay here, we’re going to die,” she shouted. Caetano told her to run. As he dragged his father by the arm, he remembered his uncle, alone at home next door. He went back to fetch him, but the man refused to leave – he wouldn’t abandon his home. At his wits’ end, Caetano started heading for the highest point in Bento, along with other terrified residents.
Just before four o’clock in the afternoon, Bento Rodrigues ceased to exist. The immense wave of mud overran the village, engulfing houses, shattering windows, sweeping away furniture, clothing, toys, pans, and hundreds of life stories. Many animals which were tied or penned up when the wave hit were carried off as well. Dogs, cats, horses, chickens, pigs, and caged birds didn’t stand a chance. They tumbled away along with roof tiles, windows, the altar of the 18th-century church, trees, and automobiles.
The residents watched the red sea wash over rooftops and cover the entire town in quick succession. Since they’d been stranded in different areas, nobody knew who had survived. Mothers cried out for their children, and children for their mothers. Adults and children wept. Some residents formed a human chain and rescued neighbors who were on the verge of being carried away by the liquid debris. Wesley Pinto Izabel was one of them. As he was lifted out of the mud, he asked them to save his 2-year-old son, who was starting to go under. A young man dived into the surge and pulled the boy out. Wesley Izabel’s daughter, Emanuelly Fernandes, age 5, was lost, carried away by the wave.
When the dam broke, Wesley Izabel was at home with the two children. At first he thought it would be safest to stay put; once he realized how strong the torrent was, he saw that they wouldn’t stand a chance. By the time he decided to run for it, clutching his son and daughter, the mud was already lapping at his feet. As he ran, a branch dragged along by the mud crossed his path and broke his ankle. His daughter slipped from his arms and vanished. He and the boy were left bobbing along. Eliene dos Santos, the school principal who still hadn’t heard from her husband and son, was there when Wesley Izabel and the boy were pulled from the mud, naked, black and blue, and barely breathing. The mud they’d swallowed – a sludge of earth, heavy metals, and starch – had hardened inside them, burning their entrails. Izabel wept for his daughter as he called out for water for his son.
At another high point in the village not too far off, Paula Alves, the young woman with the motorcycle, had taken shelter with her mother, son, and sister, alongside other residents, near the historic church of Nossa Senhora das Mercês. From where they stood, they watched the wave swallow up Bento and continue on towards the Gualaxo do Norte River, which Santarém Creek flows into. Then something horrifying happened. As the bend in the river narrowed, the mud – finding no outlet – backed up, began swirling in place, and turned back on the village with terrible, redoubled force, smashing the houses that hadn’t yet been destroyed and surging back up to higher ground, where people had taken refuge. When the wave doubled back, they found themselves cornered, stuck between the wave of mud and the mountain. There was nowhere to run. They held each other and cried, prepared for the end.
Unexpectedly, however, the mud stopped short just a few yards from where they stood and then withdrew, as if sucked away down some massive drain. The intense pressure that it had exerted on the channel to the Gualaxo River had broken through the barrier strangling the wave, gashing open the banks of the creek and rolling on ahead. Alves and the other residents called it a miracle.
Around five o’clock in the afternoon, search and rescue teams descended from helicopters, come from Belo Horizonte, the state capital, and Ouro Preto, a city about 40 miles away. Members of the Civil Defense Corps had come over by car shortly beforehand, but there was nothing they could do. The road to Bento Rodrigues was blocked, blanketed by tons of mud. From on high, at the point where they were forced to stop, they gazed transfixed at the village completely smothered in the lava from the tailings dam, looking for all the world like a modern Pompeii. They concluded that all of the residents must have died. It came as a surprise when they saw a rescuer, clinging to a rope dangling from a helicopter, climb down and pull a figure out of the sea of mud, a woman who was still alive. She didn’t want to be saved. She was calling out for her grandson, Thiago Damasceno Santos, age seven, who had been buried nearby what had once been his home. Then, cries for help – a chorus of nearly 300 people – began to be heard from the high points of the village. The Civil Defense team cheered. They could hardly believe that anyone could have survived that inferno. The question now was how to get them out of there.
The sun was setting when the search and rescue teams and the Civil Defense Corps managed to clear a path and rescue the residents stranded in an area closer to the road to Santa Rita Durão. Wesley Izabel and his son, both unconscious, were taken by helicopter to the hospital. Eliene, the school principal, went with the rest to the closest village. Along the way, she got word that her son and mother-in-law were there, and safe. Both of them had been in the group of senior citizens and children picked up in a hurry by the trash truck. With them were the schoolchildren who’d escaped on the bus. Many were crying, and many more despaired. Pamela, Wesley Izabel’s young wife, had been at school when the dam broke, and fled with the other students. In Santa Rita, she saw her husband and son arrive and found out that Emanuelly had been lost.
Night had already fallen by the time Wiley dos Santos, the school principal’s husband, turned up badly injured in Santa Rita. He’d managed to escape by abandoning the car and running for higher ground, with the mud at his heels. From there, he made his way through dense forests over to the neighboring settlement. It was he who set the other residents at ease with news of the other group stranded near the church of Nossa Senhora das Mercês. Counting up those in Santa Rita and those who’d taken shelter near the church, the residents concluded incredulously that nearly everyone had survived. Soon they would hear of the deaths of the five neighbors who’d been with them just hours earlier: the two children, Thiago and Emanuelly; Reinaldo Caetano’s uncle, Antônio de Souza, who’d refused to leave his house; and Maria Elisa Lucas, age 60, and Maria das Graças Silva, age 65, who hadn’t been able to escape.
News of the breaking of the dam came to the state Department of the Environment and Sustainable Development (SEMAD) just before five o’clock in the afternoon. Since the secretary himself was on sick leave, it fell to the undersecretary, Geraldo Vitor de Abreu, a long-standing Workers’ Party militant with no experience in the field, to head over to the affected site. He went straight to the headquarters of Samarco, 12 miles away from Mariana. When he arrived, he found a dismaying state of affairs. The company’s directors were panicked, with no idea of how to react. The only measure they’d taken thus far was to contact the Civil Defense Corps so that they could warn residents about the accident, in keeping with the firm’s security manual. By then, the warning was moot. A simple siren would have helped alert residents to the danger, but there was none in place.
Abreu, a short, soft-spoken fellow with a strong Minas Gerais accent, asked the general manager of structural projects, Germano Lopes, to calm down. Lopes, his voice shaking, was conveying a series of jumbled details. “Germano, the last thing that we can have happen is for you all to lose control,” Abreu pleaded. What Lopes revealed next was devastating. First of all, the Samarco leadership had no idea how far the mud might go. Secondly, the tailings dam at Germano’s unit – located higher up, but adjacent to the Fundão and twice as large – also ran the risk of giving way, with its structure compromised. The same might happen with the Santarém water reservoir, across from the Fundão, which had been flooded by mud. In other words, a powerfully destructive, three-barreled weapon was leveled straight at Bento Rodrigues. Finally, the company had no plan for controlling the situation. They were facing a phenomenal accident with unpredictable consequences, and nobody knew how to respond.
While the Samarco executives desperately spun their wheels, the search and rescue teams in the region realized that the wave of mud, having swept down Santarém Creek, would soon reach the Gualaxo do Norte River. When hit with a colossal volume of earth, the river would overflow and flood the hamlets on its banks, just as had happened in Bento.
Just after six o’clock, a search and rescue helicopter landed on the football field in the settlement of Paracatu de Baixo, around 40 miles downstream from Bento. An official got off and warned residents that they had ten minutes to make it to the highest ground they could. He said that the Samarco dam had broken, and that a wave of mud was heading for them. Locals were suspicious. Who could believe that the refuse from the Fundão would make it all the way there? Josi Lourival dos Santos, age 11, was playing with her twin sister at her grandmother’s house when they heard the thrumming of the helicopter. She thought it was some sort of celebration, and headed off with them towards the football field. On the way, they encountered terrified people warning them to head back.
Those who didn’t heed the warnings barely escaped. Soon they heard a deafening noise and spotted the wave carrying off the houses at the head of the settlement. Only then did they run for high ground. After a few minutes, only the cupola of the village’s old church could be seen. Paracatu was destroyed. As the search and rescue teams had predicted, the mud kept on its way, ploughing over the banks of the Gualaxo River and wreaking havoc in six other hamlets: Gesteira, Moinhos, Barretos, Barra Longa, Vista Alegre, and Corvina. Despite the flood, all of the residents were saved.
Samarco equipment churned away into the wee hours to open a path through the forest and rescue those left in Bento. By dawn, the search and rescue crews and the Civil Defense Corps had made it there. The wounded went by helicopter, while the rest walked single file down a mud-caked trail. Residents from other hamlets were sent off on buses and trucks.
Tailings dams are mammoth structures built into natural mountaintop recesses. They are used to store all of the material discarded in the process of the extraction of iron ore from nearby mines. Those belonging to Samarco, in Minas Gerais, extract itabirite, which is a relatively iron-poor form of ore. In the 1970s, the company, then belonging to S.A. Mineração Trindade (known as SAMITRI) and the American firm Marcona – the initials of which formed the name Samarco – developed a technique for extracting the maximum amount of iron possible out of itabirite by washing it. The venture proved successful, as the product it turns out is of high quality. The problem with the method is that it generates a colossal volume of residue, or tailings, which has to be stored somewhere.
The tailings flow out to the dam, where they dry out and turn into earth. Year after year, the residue piles up in successive layers, eventually filling the hollow entirely. Since there is no frontal wall, the containing wall is formed by the waste itself. This means that the material has to remain dry and tamped down, without becoming saturated with water – otherwise, it turns to mud and collapses. To use a rough comparison, it’s like putting used coffee grounds in a broken mug. The grounds will only stay in place if they’re dried and packed together. To keep the structure from becoming flooded, whether from rainfall or accumulated humidity within it, water is constantly drained and diverted to a liquid waste dam – in the case of the Fundão, the Santarém reservoir.
Seen from above, a tailings dam looks like a desert. Seen from below, the impression it provokes is no less unnerving. The Fundão, for example, at 2950 feet above sea level, was a man-made mountain brimming with mineral waste. It had a surface area of 36.5 million square feet, double that of São Paulo’s domestic airport. The volume of waste that it harbored was astounding: nearly 2 billion cubic feet, the equivalent of nearly 10 times the volume of the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the vast body of water at the heart of Rio’s South Zone.
Since these are structures with the potential for enormous environmental devastation, mining companies need to have contingency plans in place in case their dams break. Samarco had none. Soon it would come out that the plan that the company had requested from São Paulo-based risk-control consulting firm RTI had been shelved to cut costs. According to RTI director Randal Fonseca, the plan called for the structures to be monitored on a permanent basis, with daily visits from specialists. It also included initiatives such as alerts for nearby communities, where residents would be trained how to act in case of a dam break, as well as the installation of sirens. Yet another measure would have been the construction of dikes along the valley, which would halt the advance of the mud in case of any rupture. Since Samarco never believed that this would happen, these precautions were seen as unnecessary. When the dam broke, the only solid information that company executives could lay their hands on was that, of the 466 workers onsite at the time of the accident, 452 had been located. Fourteen were missing, some of them subcontractors.
One was Daniel Altamiro de Carvalho, age 53, a machine operator at Integral, which provided services for Samarco. His daughter, Sandra Carvalho, age 22, was attending an engineering class at the Federal University of Ouro Preto when the dam collapsed. A resident of Mariana, she called her mother to find out if her father was all right. Her mother set her mind at ease, saying that everything was fine. In fact, Carvalho’s mother hadn’t heard from her husband. Fearing that Carvalho might get into an accident on the road if she tried to rush back, she preferred to spare her daughter the worry.
As night drew to a close, undersecretary Geraldo Abreu left Samarco headquarters and headed back to Mariana. En route, there came a downpour. The first rain in many months, this only exacerbated what was already an absurdly critical situation. Shaken by the shouts of stranded groups in Bento Rodrigues, which he heard as he passed through the site controlled by the Civil Defense Corps, and worried about the possibility of other dams collapsing, Abreu spent a sleepless night. Back at her home in Mariana, Carvalho, her sister, and her mother were lying awake as well. They’d reached out to Integral, and the company had once again said that it didn’t know where Daniel Carvalho was.
On the morning of the 6th, 16 hours after the collapse, masses of starving and injured people in a state of shock began to trickle into the Mariana municipal sports arena. They had been rescued from Bento Rodrigues and settlements downstream. The day before, Mayor Duarte Júnior, of the Partido Popular Socialista, had set up a center to receive the displaced. Since nobody showed up, he feared that they had all died. By the time they did make it, the place was packed with mattresses, clothing, and food donated by the population, and they were embraced by friends and strangers who had hastened over to help. Upon catching sight of Eliene dos Santos, her husband, and her baby, a grimy, exhausted trio, one volunteer brought them clothing, diapers, and milk. She was moved by the gesture. On the other side of the receiving hall, Paula Geralda Alves was being hailed as a heroine. If she hadn’t taken off on her motorcycle, many of those present would have died.
Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto, an environmental public prosecutor for the state of Minas Gerais, was in Brasília at the time of the accident. He arrived at Samarco headquarters at six o’clock the next morning, where he found total chaos. There was no hierarchy, command structure, or war room (which would only be created five days later). Dozens of bureaucrats and experts from any number of state and federal agencies were buzzing around disorientedly, demanding that the company directors take action. When Ricardo Vescovi de Aragão, the president of Samarco – who had been at his office in Belo Horizonte at the time of the accident, in a meeting on safety measures – found out what had happened, he headed over to Mariana. There, the environmental prosecutor found him wide-eyed and repeating the same sentence over and over: “This never happened before. This never happened before.” Seeing that neither Samarco nor the relevant government agencies had any idea of how to deal with the problem, Ferreira Pinto concluded that the waste would only be contained if it ran into some obstacle along the way.
The wave, which had flowed into the Carmo River by way of the Gualaxo do Norte during the night, met up with the Piranga River in Santa Cruz do Escalvado, a 60-mile drive from Mariana. On Friday morning, it reached the Doce River. There, the mud fanned out and poured forth. The Doce, stretching 400 miles to the sea, was pulled into the heart of the tragedy.
By the time it met the river, the mixture of water and mud had already passed the 800,000-NTU mark. Nephelometric Turbidity Units, or NTU, measure the cloudiness of a given fluid. Before the mud, turbidity levels for that part of the river were around 2.50 – in other words, practically transparent. According to geological manuals, the maximum tolerable level is around 1,500 NTU, which is the limit at which the water may still be cleaned sufficiently at treatment facilities in order for it to be distributed safely to the population. Technicians at the National Water Agency (ANA), and at the Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM), who were following the swathe cut by the waste and had measured its dregs, were stunned: the mud had buried the river.
Around seven in the morning, 16 hours after the Fundão Dam had broken, the wave met the first obstacle in the 63 miles it had covered so far: the concrete wall of the dam at the Candonga Hydroelectric Plant. At first, technicians believed that it might be held back there. The volume was so great, however, that the plant was soon forced to open its sluices and let part of the accumulated waste flow out. If not, there was a risk that the Candonga dam might not bear up under the weight and collapse in turn, only multiplying the tragedy.
When the floodgates were opened, the wave descended with all the force of a waterfall. A thick, bright, brick-red porridge teeming with mining waste rolled down the Doce River, wiping out all the life within it: fish, algae, microorganisms, capybaras snuffling along the banks, and all the vegetation in the immediate vicinity, which disappeared as if cut away with a knife. In polluting the river, the mud, in a chain reaction, affected the whole river basin, a region of some 33,000 square miles – a territory about the size of Austria. In all, 228 municipalities felt the effects of the disaster. During those first few days, six of them would be dramatically hard-hit.
One hundred and eighty-five miles away, in Governador Valadares, businessman Sandro Heringer awoke to the news that the mud had made it into the Doce River. Based on his knowledge of the region, he concluded that the wave would soon reach his city. With a population of 300,000, Valadares is the largest municipality on the banks of the river. Residents have such a close relationship with the waters of the Doce that Valadares is the only city in Brazil to have produced an Olympic finalist in canoeing – not that this spared the river from untreated sewage dumping, trash on its banks, or predatory fishing. Heringer was part of a group of 150 rowers who skimmed along its waters on their kayaks. On Araújos Island, one of the few pleasant spots in muggy Valadares, the river flowed down in gentle river rapids, forming an ideal stretch for canoeing. Heringer spent the day on tenterhooks.
Residents awaited the mud, unable to do anything to ward off the disaster. On Sunday, November 8th, three days after the dam had broken, and aware that the destruction of the river was inevitable, the city’s rowers got together for a farewell. In silence, over 100 rowers, Heringer among them, slid their kayaks into the river, rowed for a long while and then dove into the water. They knew that it would be the last time they would be able to do so for at least the next 10 years.
On the neighboring island of São Tarcísio, fishermen were also distraught. If the mud came, there’d be no more fishing. The business had been shrinking for some time, given several problems afflicting the Doce River. A detailed investigation by IBIO, an NGO hired by the local Watershed Committee – an organ that brings the municipalities of the region together to discuss water-scarcity solutions – revealed that pollution was the greatest evil faced by the river. Of the 228 cities in the watershed, with a total of 3.5 million inhabitants, just 20 treated their sewage. Moreover, the situation was worsened by the silting of the river’s banks and the chaotic growth of cities, as well as increased agricultural activity, the conversion of forest into pasture to the detriment of riverside vegetation, littering, and the advance of industry. Many municipalities had already begun feeding their water treatment plants with water tankers.
IBIO had also warned that invasions had compromised environmental protection zones. The springs that fed the river were either drying up or had simply vanished. In many places along the channel, water levels had sunk so low that a two-person boat might run aground. Parts of the north of Minas are undergoing desertification. While the Doce River was ailing before the mud, after the catastrophe the situation took on truly alarming dimensions.
At city hall in Governador Valadares, the main concern was the water supply. Since 100% of the city’s water came from the Doce, it would be cut off entirely when the mud arrived. And there was no plan in place for dealing with the problem. Technicians at the Water Supply and Sanitation Service (SAAE) calculated how long they could keep the uptake system running. The mud’s approach was monitored minute by minute.
With a 31-year career at SAAE, chemist Reinaldo Pacini, a man with a worried, doleful expression, was at peak stress. Since the director-general of the agency, Omir Quintino Soares, and his deputy, Vilmar Dias Júnior, had been named not by virtue of their technical know-how but thanks to political arrangements with the Workers’ Party-affiliated municipal government, the chemist knew that he would have to deal with the crisis on his own. With National Water Agency specialists pressuring to shut down the machinery as soon as possible, Pacini stood firm: he’d only stop uptake when the mud was a few miles away. The reservoirs needed to be full before the supply was cut off. “I know the system, and I know when to turn it off.”
At four in the morning on Monday, November 9th, nearly 90 hours after the Fundão dam had buckled, the mud, oozing at 1.1 mph, crept up to the Baguari Hydroelectric Plant – just upstream from Valadares, and 180 miles from Bento Rodrigues. The murky water registered over 400,000 NTU. With the shutdown of the Candonga plant, the National Power System Operator went into a state of alert. There was concern that the electricity supply to the Southeast, Brazil’s wealthiest region, might be put in jeopardy if one more plant were to go dark. Local businessman José Francisco Silva de Abreu, president of the Association of Fishermen and Friends of the Doce River, set off for Baguari with technicians from the Geological Survey of Brazil. He was devastated by what he saw: thousands of fish flailing on the surface of the water. Back in Valadares, he got an even bigger shock: riverside dwellers were cornering the fish that had swum down creeks and brooks in an attempt to escape from the mud. There were so many of them that locals were fishing with barrels.
At five o’clock in the afternoon on the 9th, four days after the Fundão accident, the mud entered Valadares at a velocity of 0.24 mph. That morning, Pacini, the water supply technician, had shut down uptake from the river to keep the system from being contaminated. As the mud drew close to the city, thousands of people converged at strategic points, even atop bridges, to watch the macabre spectacle. Heringer saw it all from Araújos Island, where he lives. The wave came down the rushing river, immediately dyeing it red, and soon fish started coming up to the surface in search of oxygen. In a little while they were all dead, bobbing on the current and wreathed in soil. The turbidity of the river, which before the tailings arrived was 2.62 NTU, went past the 120,000-NTU mark. All the life in the Doce River around Valadares was decimated, suffocated to death. It didn’t take long for the stench of rotting fish to spread through everything.
On the morning of Tuesday, the 10th, five days after the disaster, water in Valadares started running low. On the 11th, with the reservoirs dry, the city began falling part. The water tankers hired by the municipal government couldn’t meet the needs of all the communities. The mayor’s office demanded that Samarco donate mineral water, which it only did after a court order, claiming to lack the logistical means by which to distribute it. Governador Valadares became a battlefield. Stores and supermarkets were looted; there were shootouts, and the water tankers were attacked. The army had to be called in. Armed locals forced drivers to bring the tankers over to neglected neighborhoods. Those with difficulty moving were stuck in their homes, with the taps gone dry.
To monitor the crisis, the leaders of the Doce River Watershed Commitee headed over to the city. The committee is run by Leonardo Deptulski, of the Workers’ Party, mayor of Colatina, where he oversees water catchment for the municipality. The city is one of the largest in the state of Espírito Santo, 140 miles down the river from Valadares. Deptulski was accompanied by specialists from Espírito Santo’s scientific community, including Abrahão Elesbon and two other researchers from the Colatina campus of the Federal Institute of Espírito Santo (IFES).
The group arrived at Valadares on the morning of Thursday the 12th, six days after the Fundão dam had given way. As they had driven over, heading back the way the mud had come, they saw fish writhing for lack of oxygen on banks covered in reddish-orange mud. It was the off season, when fishing is banned – hence the sheer numbers of fish.
At City Hall in Valadares, Elesbon and his group were met with an extraordinary sight. Mayor Elisa Costa, of the Workers’ Party, was imploring for water between sobs. “I don’t want money, I want water for the population,” she repeated. Mineral water arrived in railcars belonging to Vale, which has a railway line cutting through the region, running from Belo Horizonte to Vitória, the capital of the state of Espírito Santo. Residents descended on the bales of bottles, some of them stocking up much more than they needed. Only a week later, more than 15 days after the accident, would the situation begin to normalize.
Resplendor is a little town two hours from Governador Valadares, heading for the mouth of the Doce River. A few miles from the municipality, following a mountain-flanked highway and turning onto a dirt road, a sign so faded as to be nearly illegible informs visitors that they are entering an Indigenous reservation. This is the village of the Krenak tribe. They had always lived there. Prospecting in the region of the Doce River led to the invasion of their lands and the extermination of their people. In the 1960s, survivors were forcibly moved to reservations in other states. Ranchers took over the land and turned it into pasture, destroying native vegetation and smothering springs. With changes to land demarcation policy, the Krenaks returned. They came on foot, and settled back in.
Dejanira Krenak is over 70 years old, having undergone the whole violent process. Since she was one of the few people in the tribe to speak the Krenak language, she started teaching it to the younger members. On the day the dam broke, she was in the village, on the sandy riverbank lapped by the Doce. The Krenak people see the river as a sacred being, one that is nonetheless familiar and welcoming. “It is our father, it is our mother,” Dejanira teaches the children in the village. “It feeds us, it gives us water, it gives us life.” Despite this recognition, in practice they have an ambiguous relationship with the river – they pollute it by washing clothes and dishes in its waters, and silt up its bed as they irrigate small plots.
On the afternoon of the 12th, eight days after the collapse, when they got word from relatives living elsewhere that the river was about to become sterile, the Krenaks gathered on the shore of the reservation for a funeral ceremony. They awaited the arrival of the wave with rattles in hand, singing a requiem for the watu – river, in Krenak. The sorrowful song mourns the “good river, sacred river, river full of fish.” When they spotted the red mud, they embraced each other and wept. The watu was dead.
After what they’d seen in Valadares, Mayor Leonardo Deptulski and the researchers from IFES returned to Colatina shaken. They knew that they had to set up an emergency action plan in order to avoid what’d happened in Minas Gerais. Colatina has 120,000 inhabitants, and is an important hub for textile production and state services. Deptulski created a war room at the headquarters of the Department of Water and Sanitation. Technicians from Samarco and the state and federal governments were called in, as well as members of the Armed Forces.
Professor Elbone of IFES, having witnessed such a monumental fish kill, thought that something had to be done to keep the same from happening in Espírito Santo. He contacted Edson Negrelli, a photographer and active environmentalist in Colatina, and they decided to set up a rescue operation for the river fauna before the mud arrived. They called it “Noah’s Ark.” Negrelli and Elbone asked for help from the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), which green-lighted the idea, but stipulated that only native species should be rescued and taken to tanks on the campus of the Institute. Non-native species would be left in the river – they couldn’t be transferred to nearby lagoons, since their presence would alter the local fauna. Negrelli didn’t agree with the restriction; he thought all the species should be saved.
The operation was carefully set up. Samarco sent transport tankers with oxygen-controlled chambers, IFES prepared the tanks, and Negrelli, who heads up Colatina’s sport fishing association, invited the fishermen in the area to help with the rescue effort. To the photographer’s dismay, the fishermen only agreed to help as long as they were paid. After everything was settled, Noah’s Ark began. The operation drew enthusiastic responses from locals, who soon clustered at the edge of the quay. Those who didn’t take to the water served as a support crew for the rescuers, providing coffee, water, and food. For a week, volunteers kept up the effort. Hundreds of native species were transferred to IFES’ tanks. And thousands of non-native fishes were removed and put into nearby lagoons, flouting IBAMA’s orders.
On the morning of Thursday, the 19th, 14 days after the Fundão dam had broken, the mud came to Colatina. When the wave was 30 miles away from the city, water uptake was shut off. There were already 180 tankers on the streets, ready to distribute drinking water. Each resident could take as much as they thought necessary, which put the population at ease. The wave slid in, turning the wide river into a vast muddy field. Sitting on the pier, Negrelli cried.
The crisis in Colatina was under control. But there was a problem looming, and not a small one at that: the wave was quickly drawing close to the mouth of the river, at the hamlet of Regência, 82 miles away. This meant that it would soon pour out into the Atlantic Ocean. Since the various public institutions at work weren’t centrally coordinated, nobody knew what to do. Days earlier, researchers at the Federal University of Espírito Santo had suggested that the Aimorés Hydroelectric Plant, on the state line between Minas and Espírito Santo, shut its sluices to hold back the waste and keep it from entering the state. By the time the decision had been made and word went out, it was too late: the mud had already come through.
On the 19th, as if surprised by the news that the mud would make it to the coast of Espírito Santo, federal courts in the state gave Samarco 24 hours to act to halt the wave’s advance, subject to a fine of R$10 million per day (around $3 million). In an attempt to comply, Samarco planted oil-spill containment booms along the Doce, all the way to the mouth of the river.
In Regência, community leader Carlos Sangália and the team at Projeto Tamar, a Brazilian nonprofit dedicated to saving sea turtles, collected turtle nests to transfer them to other areas. Samarco’s booms proved useless: the waste slid by them, proceeding on its path of destruction.
On Friday the 20th, the mud, having passed through Colatina, came to the nearby city of Linhares. In a region surrounded by blue lagoons and lofty mountains on one side and the Doce River on the other, the river’s scarlet, rotting waters struck a sour note in the dazzling landscape. Just before three o’clock in the afternoon on the 21st, the mud made it to the mouth of the river. Within seconds, life in the mangrove swamps was suffocated. At three o’clock on the dot, 16 days after the dam had broken, the mud flowed out into the sea, devastating all the biodiversity within 25 miles.
THE STORY OF THOSE IN CHARGE
Rodrigo Bustamante, regional chief of the Civil Police of Minas Gerais, stationed in Ouro Preto, headed over to Bento Rodrigues along with investigator Otávio Guerra Terceiro as soon as he got word that the dam had broken, at 3:30 p.m. on November 5th. Since it was extremely likely that the disaster had claimed victims, they began the investigation by looking into the causes of the accident, looking to find those liable for it. In mid-April I met with Bustamante in Ouro Preto, in his office at the police station. He spoke bluntly. “What happened there was a tragedy foretold,” he said. “And that little settlement under the dam never had any idea of the danger it was in.”
Bustamente pulled a copy of the Civil Police’s report out from a drawer and pointed to the testimony of Samarco’s geotechnics and hydrogeology manager, Daviely Rodrigues Silva, who was responsible for monitoring the dam. “Look at this,” he said, and started reading out loud. The manager revealed that the Fundão dam, designed in 2006 by the firm Pimenta de Ávila and erected by the construction company Camter, had always had drainage problems. The first came in 2009, when the dam sprung a leak; a second came in 2010; and a third, more serious one cropped up in 2012. All of them were patched.
In 2012, Samarco canceled its contract with Pimenta de Ávila and decided to work on the dam’s structure on its own. The company altered the dam axis, curving it so it could hold more waste, but didn’t alert state environmental agencies, then headed up by Antonio Anastasia of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB). From then on, the problems got worse. In 2013, the left half of the dam, where the construction project had been carried out, began leaking. In 2014, water bled out of the right half.
Accidents like the one at the Fundão dam had happened around the world, but an entire dam had never fallen apart. According to the Civil Police, that proves that water had seeped into the dam’s entrails, leaving the entire structure on the verge of turning into mud. To stave off this sort of accident, piezometers must be placed inside dams. These are devices that measure water levels and warn if the structures are at risk of liquefying. By 2014, when Fundão’s water problems seemed unending, Samarco requested that Pimenta de Ávila draw up a report.
In a statement to the Civil Police, the president of the firm, Joaquim Pimenta de Ávila, said that the original design did not account for the alteration made in 2012, and explained that the modification was both risky and technically unsound. He also revealed that he’d carried out six inspections at the dam in 2014, and emphasized one such visit, on September 4th, when he identified large cracks near the dike where the dam axis had been angled backward. At the time, Ávila had suggested to Samarco that they reinforce the site and increase the number of piezometers in the area. Moreover, he recommended that water levels be checked on a daily basis.
Environmental regulations stipulate that mining companies should present an annual inspection report showing that their dams are safe. The companies themselves hire the consulting firms which attest to the constructions’ stability. Samarco turned to VOGBR, which had also altered the curvature of the dam. In June 2015, Samuel Paes Loures, an engineer at VOGBR, put out a report attesting that the Fundão dam was safe. The construction company, in other words, was tasked with inspecting its own work – a classic conflict of interest.
When Bustamante asked Loures if he’d analyzed the area which had been modified, he said he hadn’t: he didn’t see any need to. The engineer also claimed to be unaware of Pimenta de Ávila’s recommendations that more piezometers be placed around that part of the structure. He said he also hadn’t been informed of the need to check water levels on a daily basis. Bustamente told me he couldn’t understand how VOGBR could have vouched for the dam’s stability, given the countless flaws in its structure.
Subsequent testimony would make things even worse for Samarco. The last time water levels had been measured was on October 26th, 10 days before the collapse – Pimenta de Ávila had recommended daily testing. That wasn’t all: the levels were gauged manually, because the automated piezometers, which could produce more precise measurements, weren’t working. Moreover, Bustamante says, while the company was aware of ongoing drainage issues, they increased the volume of the waste stored there, flying in the face of technical standards.
Those standards hold that the crest of a dam – industry jargon for the amount of waste built up per year – should come to 11 yards, at most. At the Fundão dam, the crest was over 16 yards. Despite their knowledge of the structure’s problems, Samarco requested authorization from the Minas Gerais Department of the Environment (by then under Governor Fernando Pimentel, of the Workers’ Party) to raise the dam from 982 yards to 1,006, thus boosting its storage capacity. Authorization was granted.
Both the construction of the dam, begun in 2008 under Governor Aécio Neves of the PSDB, and its raising, as green-lighted by Pimentel’s administration, were justified – according to Samarco – by an increase in production. When it began operating in 1977, the company was turning out 5 million tons of ore. By 2014, that number had risen to 30 million tons. This expansion sought to take advantage of the upswing in ore prices, which had reached $240 per ton, in the case of Samarco’s ore, which was of the highest quality.
But it was the statement from Samarco president, Ricardo Vescovi de Aragão, which would lay bare the depths of company management’s carelessness. Vescovi de Aragão blamed his subordinates, sidestepping his responsibilities. As the chief executive officer, he said, he was not “directly responsible for the Fundão, Santarém, and Germano dams”; he was unaware of the dam axis alteration, which had been approved in 2012 by the general projects manager; and he couldn’t say what the cause of the collapse had been, since that was the operations director’s purview.
According to Vescovi de Aragão, he’d had nothing to do with any of that. Even so, he swore that on the day of the accident he “provided support and assurance to the employees who were working with the Civil Defense Corps and the search and rescue teams.” He lied to the police, saying that the company’s contingency plan had been triggered when no such plan existed. When pressed, Vescovi kept insisting that he had “no responsibility for the action plan.”
Roger Lima de Moura, the head of the Office of Crimes Against the Environment and Historic Heritage with the Minas Gerais federal police, watched the news about the collapse of the dam on television, in his office in Belo Horizonte. He was stunned by the footage, but didn’t know if he was authorized to take action, since the accident was initially limited to state rivers. On Friday, November 6th, when the mud hit the Doce, which is a federal river (it runs through two states), he sent his team out to investigate the crime. In December, federal agents tapped phone calls between Samarco and VOGBR employees. From what they heard, they concluded that the executives at both companies were aware of the dam’s problems, but accepted the risks inherent in keeping it running.
VOGBR engineer Samuel Paes Loures, for example, while speaking to a coworker, Othávio Afonso Marchi, let out a furious comment about Joaquim de Ávila, the head of the consulting firm Pimenta de Ávila: “He was the only one who threw shit at the fan and tipped off the police. It’s his fault that the investigation changed course. We’ve got to cut and run.” Later on, he would admit guilt. “Pimenta’s right, but he’s helping out with the investigation and fucking us in the process.”
As the dam buckled, President Dilma Rousseff and Minister of National Integration Gilberto Occhi were taking part in the inauguration of the Canal do Sertão, a channel carrying water from the São Francisco River to municipalities in the state of Alagoas. They got word of the tragedy on the plane back to Brasília. The president immediately contacted the minister of the environment, Izabella Teixeira, and other members of the administration, but at that point nobody had any idea of the scale of the devastation. The first notice the presidential entourage received was when Occhi got a call from his staff asking if he would go to the affected area the next day. They needed to respond to Jornal Nacional, the Globo network’s nightly news program, which had just asked. The minister said yes, he would go.
On the afternoon of Friday the 24th, 24 hours after the dam had broken, as news of the disaster rippled across the world, the president’s staff was still trying to convince her to go to Mariana in a show of solidarity. Dilma said no. She thought that showing up in the thick of the tragedy might seem like opportunism, and decided to stay at the presidential palace, monitoring the situation and demanding that measures be taken. Irritated at how long it was taking for Minister Izabella Teixeira to provide her with data on the accident, the president locked horns with her in a phone conversation that could be heard by those walking by her office. “I want reliable data,” President Rousseff shouted, calling for answers. On the other side of the line, the minister defended herself at the same decibel level.
The president of Vale, Murilo Ferreira, flew over the Doce River Valley – the original namesake for his company, Vale do Rio Doce – on Saturday, November 7th, 48 hours after the accident. Despite pleas from his staff to reach out to civil society, Ferreira remained silent. He thought that it was time “to work to help the victims, not time to talk.” In fact, in the wake of the collapse of Samarco’s dam, Vale, which had bought 50% of the company in 2000 – the other half belongs to the Anglo-Australian mining company BHP Billiton – tried to put distance between itself and the disaster. Pointing to the shareholders’ agreement, which stipulated that controlling companes have no contact with the corporation in question, Vale argued that since all three produced iron ore, any collaboration with Samarco would constitute cartel formation.
In Australia, pressure from environmentalist groups forced BHP Billiton president Andrew Mackenzie to speak out. One of his greatest concerns was keeping the accident from ruining the company’s image.
On Sunday the 8th, 72 hours after the Fundão had given way, with part of Minas Gerais in a state of emergency, Governor Fernando Pimentel held a press conference. He chose to speak with journalists at Samarco headquarters. Social movements accused him of taking a soft hand with the company. During his statement, he said that the state government and Samarco were doing “everything possible to mitigate the damage caused by the disaster.” Nor did he take a hard line with the company: “We cannot point fingers without a more thorough technical investigation,” he said. The mining sector is among the largest taxpayers in Minas.
On the afternoon of Wednesday the 11th, six days after the disaster, the presidents of the three mining companies held an interview at Samarco headquarters. Ricardo Vescovi de Aragão, his face a rictus of panic, sat between Ferreira and Mackenzie – who had flown in from Sydney and Belo Horizonte to take part in the press conference – and rested a hand on each of their shoulders, as if to signify that they were all in the same boat. Ferreira and Mackenzie were taken aback, their discomfort visible. Vescovi de Aragão began his statement not with an apology, but by offering thanks for the solidarity that the company was receiving from society, given the predicament it faced in the wake of the disaster. He concluded by promising to do whatever possible to quickly address the human and environmental problems that the accident had wrought. Ferreira and Mackenzie expressed their sympathy for the families of the victims and the missing, but likewise failed to apologize.
Dilma Rousseff would only visit the region affected by the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history one week after it had happened. In the United States, George W. Bush had waited two days before flying over New Orleans – in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated 80% of the city – a delay that sent his approval ratings to new lows. His failure to react immediately came to be considered one of the most serious displays of dereliction of duty in the history of the presidency of the United States. On the 12th, Dilma’s staff finally convinced her to go to Governador Valadares, which by then was in a state of emergency. IBAMA, under the auspices of the Ministry of the Environment, had decided to fine Samarco R$250 million (approximately $75 million) for the environmental destruction it had caused. It would fall to President Rousseff to announce the measure. At the Valadares airport, she held an emergency meeting with the mayors of the affected cities, and then spoke to the press. It was a fiasco. First, she stumbled over the company’s name, calling it “São Marcos.” Then, as if unaware of the severity of the situation, she declared that the Doce River would be restored and left “much better than it was.” Finally, she announced the fine, which the company would appeal (and wind up never paying), and then left.
In the immediate wake of the disaster, federal and state agencies struck up a shoving match, each trying to pin the responsibility for monitoring the dam on the other. IBAMA claimed that it was up to the Department of the Environment for the state of Minas Gerais. The department, in turn, argued that its role was limited to licensing, and that monitoring fell to the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM), under the auspices of the Ministry of Mines and Energy. Cornered by pressure from several sides, DNPM director Celso Luiz Garcia resigned.
Brazilian law stipulates that the construction, expansion, and functioning of activities related to environmental resources which may cause harm to the environment must be licensed by the relevant state agency and by IBAMA. The National Environmental Council, however, determined that dam licensing would be dealt with at the state level. In 2010, a new law mandated that, in addition to state agencies, the DNPM would inspect dams as well. The problem with that was that, while now obliged to take on this responsibility, the department received no funding to do so. It currently has four technicians able to conduct inspections.
In late November, vexed by the three mining companies’ delay in proposing a plan to repair the damage caused by the accident, Dilma Rousseff held a conference call with the presidents of Vale and BHP. She spoke sternly, threatening them with a suit. Until that point, both companies had been trying to keep their distance from the problem, alleging that, as controlling shareholders, they couldn’t interfere in the management of Samarco. Dilma met personally with Ricardo Vescovi de Aragão, during which she hardly let him get a word in edgewise, interrupting him constantly. When the president left the room, he remarked, “She has so many convictions about mining that she could run the company.” Vescovi de Aragão would only be removed as president of Samarco in January.
The first victory over the companies came when the courts formally blamed not only Samarco, but also Vale and BHP for the disaster. Vale was even cited as a direct polluter, since it also deposited waste at the Fundão dam, despite not having notified environmental agencies. From then on, all three firms would have to deal with the fallout. In early December, the companies’ executives contacted President Rousseff, looking to come to some sort of understanding.
IBAMA, run at the time by the engineer Marilene Ramos, was tasked with overseeing the negotiations. After discussions with the mayors and governors of the affected areas, environmental organizations, and companies, a figure of R$20 billion (just over $6 billion) in cleanup costs and damages was set to be paid by the three companies over the course of 20 years. Of that total, R$2 billion (or approximately $600 million) would go to those who lost personal property and had their businesses destroyed – companies, hotels, beds-and-breakfast, ranches – as well as to the municipalities whose public facilities were ruined. The remaining R$18 billion (about $5.5 billion) would be used on repairs and compensation for damages.
The meetings at IBAMA’s headquarters in Brasília were tense. The mining companies brought along more lawyers than engineers. One of the major clashes was over the companies’ obligation to build sewage treatment networks in the municipalities in the Doce river basin and remove all landfills from its banks. The companies claimed that this wasn’t their responsibility. In one meeting that began at nine o’clock in the morning and went late into the night, Marilene Ramos insisted that waste treatment would be key for the river to restore the biological processes destroyed by the mud. “They seemed to not understand the scope of the destruction they’d wrought,” Ramos commented during a conversation in her Brasília office.
Representatives from the federal and state prosecutor’s offices abandoned the talks right away. In a conversation in early April, the federal prosecutor for Minas Gerais, Eduardo Henrique Aguiar, laid out the reasons for their hasty exit – chief among them the fact that the dam was still leaking as discussions continued.
At the time of the negotiations in Brasília, Samarco had yet to put forth a containment plan for the mud remaining at the dam; one would only be presented on January 13th. When I interviewed Aguiar, however, five months after the disaster, he told me that the company still had not solved the problem. “We’re in April now, and the dam is still leaking. That’s unacceptable.” Despite this reaction from the public prosecutor’s office, the agreement was approved by the courts on May 5th.
In late February, Officer Bustamante of the Civil Police presented the results of his investigation. He brought criminal charges against Samarco president Ricardo Vescovi de Aragão and five other executives at the company, as well as the VOGBR technician who had found the dam safe, and called for the arrest of all seven of them for the deaths of 19 people. In late March, however, a superior court suspended the arrest warrants until it could be determined whether this was a matter for state or federal courts. In June, the Federal Police indicted eight people on charges of damaging the environment, as well as Samarco, Vale, and BHP.
Roberto Lúcio de Carvalho has taken Vescovi de Aragão’s place as president of Samarco. In mid-May, we met in the company’s offices in Belo Horizonte. I mentioned the results of the investigations, which indicated that the dam had liquefied. He told me that he was awaiting the completion of reports that Samarco had requested from international consulting firms. I asked whether Samarco should have installed a least one warning siren in Bento Rodrigues in case the dam broke. “The siren wasn’t mandatory,” he said. “Moreover, we never imagined that the entire dam could give way. That had never happened anywhere in the world.” Then he added, “After this accident, the way we look at dams will be utterly changed. It’s like Chernobyl. The nuclear industry was never the same afterwards.” Finally, he said he was confident that Samarco could be operational again in November, guaranteeing that the company was carrying out intense cleanup efforts in the areas devastated by the accident.
That’s not exactly the case. In early June, seven months after the tragedy, IBAMA set up an emergency operation to monitor the work that Samarco, with aid from Vale and BHP Billiton, was allegedly doing in the affected areas. Operation Augeas, as it is called – in an allusion to one of the twelve labors of Hercules, which was to clean out the Augean stables – is run by André Socrates de Almeida Teixeira, the current director of IBAMA. While criticizing the mining companies for the delay in their projects, he confessed that he is most worried about the Candonga Hydroelectric Plant – since it held back 350 million cubic feet of sediment, its structure is under pressure. Work on the plant has stalled. The dredger that Samarco had set aside to clean up the mud hadn’t even started up yet. “Candonga is below a safe level and is already cracking,” Sócrates de Almeida Teixeira said. “I don’t want to even contemplate what might happen if it gives way.”
With the arrival of the rainy season in October, the 460 million cubic feet of waste left in the Fundão dam run the risk of sliding down in turn. According to Sócrates de Almeida Teixeira, the dikes that Samarco built to contain the tailings are already saturated and won’t last fifteen days under heavy rain. The mining company and its controlling shareholders, he says, are being negligent: either they don’t do the work they’re supposed to, or they do it sloppily.
When Dilma Rousseff was suspended as part of the impeachment process, Michel Temer’s interim administration named Zequinha Sarney as Minister of the Environment. Soon after taking office, the minister went to Mariana and warned that he wouldn’t allow Samarco to resume operation unless the company advanced significantly beyond they’d done so far. He even plans to review the terms of the agreement that Dilma’s administration struck with the three mining companies.
The breaking of the dam left marks that will not easily fade. Analyses from the Federal University of Espírito Santo reveal that the mud has altered all of the biodiversity in the river- and seawater that it touched. In addition to killing off fauna, it destroyed the algae and micro-organisms that fish feed on, making it nigh impossible to predict what the consequences of the accident will be for life in the affected habitats. “Will the fish be able to adapt to a new diet? What will the contamination effects be on humans? And what about the turtles? Will they ever lay their eggs there again? All of these life-forms may flee,” said Alex Cardoso de Bastos, a professor in the university’s department of oceanography. “The results are still to be seen.” Given high contamination levels for fish and crustaceans, fishing along the whole of the Doce River is not recommended, and marine fishing around Regência has been banned.
Photographer Gustavo Nolasco, a native of Mariana, traveled to his hometown as soon as he heard of the accident. Seeing the despair of the residents of Bento Rodrigues, he created a publication that would allow them to voice their pain and lessen the trauma of the ordeal. For the first edition of the newspaper, called A Sirene (The Siren) – sirens have only just now been installed in the destroyed communities – Nolasco asked locals to write about what they’d like to take from the old Bento Rodrigues to the new one, to be built by Samarco. The list is a reflection on the undoing of the stream of life. Here is what they wrote: the songs sung in the open air, the stone staircase, the sweet acacia tree, the neighbors, the churches, the stone bench in the square, the cemetery, the fried lambari fish, the pick-up football games, playing in the street, the waterfalls, life in the open…
On an April afternoon, I met up with Paula Alves, currently living in Mariana, in a house rented by Samarco. Like the majority of those from Bento Rodrigues, she’s been unable to adapt to the city. Many are grappling with depression, and three suicides have been recorded.
Alves wasn’t depressed. Sad, yes. She was working as an animal caretaker in the hangar Samarco had set up to shelter those that survived the disaster. She kept on going to work on her motorcycle, which she calls Berenice. In May, a month after our meeting, the company held a fair where 80 animals were adopted. The hangar emptied out, and Alves was fired. Her five-year-old son is undergoing psychological treatment.
Eliene dos Santos, the principal, managed to find room at a school for the students from Bento. Having spent all her life in the village, she now lives in an apartment in Mariana with her husband and son. I asked what she was expecting from the new Bento Rodrigues. She didn’t seem excited at the prospect: the house that Samarco will give her won’t have the same history behind it as the old one, which she built with her husband. “It won’t have the windows, the flooring we chose with so much care.” Santos said that she’d like for her life to be the way it was before November 5th. “No compensation can pay for the change in direction that my story took.”
Lately, the former residents of Bento Rodrigues have been victims of prejudice. “We’re like refugees,” Santos said. “Targets of pity and hate.” The stoppage of production at Samarco has affected the local economy and pushed up unemployment, and many of those from Mariana have laid blame for the crisis at the feet of the new arrivals. Mariana mayor Duarte Júnior says he’s aware of prejudice, particularly because the displaced receive meal cards and a cash stipend, while the unemployed are left to fend for themselves. Having taken office in June of 2015, after the previous mayor was found guilty of corruption and removed, Duarte Júnior says that without Samarco’s revenues, the municipal government can’t make ends meet.
One April morning, at the Mariana Convention Center, the farmer Reinaldo Caetano, along with two hundred residents, awaited the check that the municipal government distributed to the victims of the catastrophe. The funds were drawn from donations made across Brazil. Caetano was playing with his son Iago to one side of the room, waiting for his turn. He said that he’d separated from his wife, Jessica, after they moved to the city. “She started taking drugs again. I saw it when she got home, all covered in piss,” Caetano said flatly. He isn’t doing so well either, he admitted. He can’t sleep at night, kept up by his “endless anguish.” He spends the wee hours at the taxi stand, chatting with the drivers.
For safety reasons, access to Bento Rodrigues is limited. Looters went over to the settlement and stole whatever was still of use: roof tiles, window sashes, and the like. In Paracatu de Baixo, the houses are still buried. What was left of them was also stolen. Sandra Carvalho, the engineering student, said that her family was informed of her father’s death on November 24th. They found the destroyed remains of Daniel Altamiro de Carvalho’s body in the middle of the dam. Carvalho, who had been a Vale employee for 25 years and lost his job during the crisis in the mining sector, had been happy to find work at Integral in August. Less than three months later, he was dead. In January, his family would be subjected to a grotesque ordeal: they were given a few stray pieces of his corpse and asked to take care of the burial arrangements.
The bodies of 13 other employees were also extracted from the mud, almost all of them dismembered. Their names, in the order in which their remains appeared, are as follows: Waldemir Aparecido Leandro, Samuel Vieira Albino, Sileno Narkievicius de Lima, Marcos Roberto Xavier, Edinaldo Oliveira de Assis, Marcos Aurélio Pereira de Moura, Claudemir Elias dos Santos, Pedro Paulino Lopes, Mateus Márcio Fernandes, Vando Maurílio dos Santos, Cláudio Fiuza da Silva, Aílton Martins dos Santos, and Edmirson José Pessoa.
In Valadares, Sandro Heringer took me over to the riverbank. Since the accident, he had joined a movement dedicated to not letting the environmental tragedy stand. In the fishing village, near the river, mosquitoes swarmed those who drew close to the shore. They came with the mud. Many of the city’s residents now live off of aid from Samarco. There came a multiplication, not of fish and loaves, but of fishermen, who began proliferating after the news that those in that line of work would be compensated. Many of those who got aid had never picked up a hook in their lives, Heringer said. Valadares is also dealing with a dengue outbreak. Fearing a lack of water, residents stored up more than they needed. Today, water tanks, vats, and barrels have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
At SAAE, chemist Reinaldo Pacini explained that, given the dry weather, the thickest of the mud had settled, and the machines will have to be cleaned more often. Days after that conversation, Omir Quintino Soares, the organization’s director-general, and deputy director Vilmar Dias Júnior, were arrested by the federal police as part of Operation Sea of Mud, which is looking into the embezzling of federal funds sent in 2013 to aid victims of flooding in Valadares. Pacini’s superiors are accused of having pocketed the money for the cleanup and restoration of the city.
In Colatina, Negrelli is still trying to call people’s attention to the environmental destruction wrought by the accident. The photographer’s ill will towards the fishermen hasn’t passed: he’s no longer speaking to them. He has campaigned to put pressure on Samarco, Vale, and BHP to act more quickly.
In Regência, community leader Carlos Sangália walked me over to the beach. The sea is still a vast red stain. On the way to the village, he showed me beds-and-breakfast that had closed down. “Look at this. It’s all done for. We don’t even know what’s going to happen to the turtles.”
In Resplendor, two community leaders from the Krenak reservation, Giovani and Itamar Krenak, spoke about the consequences of the accident for their people. “We can’t plant anything because we have no water to irrigate with. We can’t carry out our rituals in the river, and our children can’t swim. Have you ever seen an Indian who couldn’t swim?” Giovanni complained. To make matters worse, from April onward, when the Chamber of Deputies began the process of suspending President Rousseff, the nation’s attention was drawn to Brasília. “This impeachment business was the worst possible thing that could have happened. Nobody wants to hear about the Doce River anymore.”
Dejanira Krenak, the village elder, suggested that I take a look at the river. “It’s silent as can be. There’s no life there. Not one fish playing in the water,” she said. A water tanker rumbled through the village. The driver beckoned. When the vehicle stopped, the children ran over to bathe themselves under the hose.
 The first part of this piece was inspired by Hiroshima, by John Hershey.
Repórter da piauí desde 2007, é autora da coletânea de perfis Bilhões e Lágrimas, da Companhia das Letras