Samarco to resume production after Fundão dam tragedy

Wreckage from the Fundão dam disaster. Photo by Rogério Alves/TV Senado.

Samarco is expected to resume activities this month, five years after the Fundão dam tragedy.

On November 5, 2015, the dam, owned by Samarco – controlled by Vale (NYSE: VALE) and BHP (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO) – burst, releasing 39.2 million cubic meters of tailings waste in the Rio Doce Basin, killing 19 people. At the time it was Brazil’s biggest environmental disaster. 

Brazilian prosecutors said in October that the Renova Foundation, created by the miners for the reparation of the damages did not deliver on any of its promises.

Samarco told MINING.COM it is finalizing starting protocols at its new tailings filtering plant at the Germano unit in Minas Gerais state, which will allow 80% of the total tailings to be dry stacked. The remaining 20%, composed of water and fine ore, will be disposed in Cava Alegria Sul, a rocky natural containment structure.

Tailings filtering plant at the Germano unit (Credit: Samarco)

Samarco received the Collective Operational License to resume activities in October 2019. According to the company, the resumption of activities will be gradual, with a concentrator in Germano, and a pelletizing plant in Ubu, Espírito Santo state, totaling 26% of the capacity.

The company expects initial production of 8 million tonnes of iron ore per year.

In 2015, the year of the tragedy, the company produced 25 million tonnes of iron ore.

Samarco said it has developed a new security system, which includes a monitoring and inspection center. The company also conducts tests to reuse the tailings waste in construction. Four kilometers of roads in the Mariana region have already been paved with reused material.

“We have lived through learning for the past five years,” said Samarco CEO Rodrigo Vilela.

Despite the destruction caused by the dam’s burst, Mariana authorities are eagerly awaiting the resumption of mining activities. Until the tragedy, 89% of the city’s tax collection came from Vale and Samarco. The disaster led to an unemployment rate of 30%.

“The population has a lot of respect for Samarco due to the company’s operating time in the region, the mayor of Mariana, Duarte Junior, told MINING.COM. “We hope the resumption generates jobs in the city.”

Samarco currently has approximately 1,400 employees.

Reconstruction efforts at Samarco’s Fundao tailings dam in 2017. (Photo courtesy of BHP)

Duarte Junior also claims that investments promised by Renova Foundation, such as the construction of an industrial park and investments in a local milk cooperative are proceeding at a very slow pace.

“The return of operations will allow Samarco to contribute even more to the development of the territories where the company operates,” said Samarco in a release.

Of the 21 people who had been charged in 2016 by the Federal Public Ministry for the crime of qualified homicide with possible intent, five continue to respond to a lawsuit in the Federal Court. Today, however, they are responding to flood and landslide crimes followed by death, as well as environmental crimes. The crime of homicide was removed from the process in 2019.

Vale, BHP and Samarco are defendants in this process.

The consultancy company Ramboll concluded in 2019 that none of the 512 families that had their homes affected by the dam burst had been resettled. 56% of the 414 temporary homes presented some type of inadequacy.

Credit: Ramboll

The average time to receive emergency financial aid was three years.
A study by researcher Liz Matsunaga, a fellow at Instituto Escolhas, showed an increase in hospitalizations for mental illness, with cases of stress and schizophrenia, and an increase in alcohol and drug consumption.

“The public health system in the 41 affected municipalities has received around 26,000 people in the past 5 years due to conditions related to the disaster,” says Matsunaga.

“The disaster had a bigger impact at Mariana because of the destruction of the ecosystem. People had ties of generations to their homes”

After the disaster, a study published by the Latin American and the Caribbean Economic Association also showed a sharp decline in birth weight and an increase in infant mortality for children exposed in utero to the tragedy.

Samarco said it is committed to remediate and compensate the victims and that up to September 2020, over $1.9 billion had been allocated as compensation.

This article first appeared in, part of Glacier Resource Innovation Group.


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