The irresponsibility of Vale has led to a second big mining disaster in Brazil

Youssef Bouarada, 27 February 2019

On January 25th, a catastrophic failure of a tailings dam in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, in Brazil led to a human and environmental disaster that cost the lives of 166 individuals and the release of millions of cubic meters of tailings into the environment.


This disaster was simply a result of an ongoing race to the bottom that encourages mining companies to turn a blind eye to safety and hazard standards and it has to stop right now!

Before digging into the subject, we wish to join all our partners and all the community beyond to pay our grievances to the 166 deaths and our thoughts and prayers to the people that are still missing, hoping that this tragedy won’t be repeated.

Again, this race to the bottom must be immediately halted. We are, more than ever before, convinced that business-as-usual practices are not effective when it comes to reaching the ideal of zero harm in regards with mining activities. This ideal is stressed by the mining sector in their own sustainability practices and commitments reports. And Vale was one of the companies that committed to this goal.

The tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh sparked the will to change when it came to rising the standards related to safety in the work environment to an acceptable level. This desire of change was rightfully met by the civil society components who worked conjointly with private companies to ensure the enforcement of hazard and safety standards. This is a good example of possible positive cooperation between corporations and civil society in order to commonly operate a shift to better practices in the business environment. It must be applied to the mining sector.

Brumadinho, Mount Polley (Canada, 2014), Samarco (Brazil, 2015) and many other tragedies have common causes and parameters. Yet, no real critical self-questioning was raised within the dominant actors from the mining industry. The Canadian center of Alternative policies already warned right after the Mount Polley accident that if nothing changes, we can expect tragedies occurring at a rate of two disasters per decade.

The disaster of Brumadinho in Brazil was not the first of its kind, not in the world, not even in Brazil. Vale had received 11 fines in the last 8 years that can be summed up to more than 102 million euros, and this concerns only the site of Brumadinho. Therefore, the model of open tailing dams placed on high slopes is not sustainable from any perspective. Up to this day, Vale haven’t paid a single cent of this amount.

The accident of Samarco that contaminated the Rio Doce in 2015 is another example of the attempt to get away with impunity. Vale claimed that there were no funds available for the cleanup. In this case, Brazilian justice showed teeth by freezing their assets and obliged them to commit to paying 8 million US dollars. This kind of strong leadership must be translated into concrete action to achieve better commitments and implementation of norms governing safety and hazard. Eventually, a convergence of national arsenals of laws must set new, more rigorous norms around the world and within the different branches of power. Legislators and executors must look up to the Brazilian independent judicial power as an example of ending corporate impunity.

Therefore, something has to change regarding the regulations and the practices.

This change has to be radical. Companies like Vale must be held entirely accountable for the mess that hey caused and pay the entire bill for cleaning it. In the Canadian case, the Province of British-Colombia paid back Imperial Metals, the responsible company, 23 million Canadian dollars -from Taxpayers money, the same people that suffered the tragedy- as a form of fiscal incentives after cleaning. Gaming the system that way is definitely a barrier to the effectiveness of a new, socially and environmentally responsible mining regime. Brazilian justice has to shimmer the example. This is going the right way since the public prosecutor of Minas Gerais threatened to seize the equipment of Vale in the scenario of nonpayment of fines.

The reaction to Mount Polley disaster by the provincial government of British Columbia in Canada was the concretization of the adage “One step forward then two steps backwards”. Although the government had implemented 20 out of the 27 measures that appear in the Mount Polley guidelines, it had not insisted on the importance of carrying out independent inspections, therefore, no real change in the quality and integrity of the inspections was operated. This is not the way to go.

So, what needs to be done?

Firstly, stop developing networks of “expert agencies” that produce “counter expertise” with the sole goal of preventing any improvements when it comes to initiatives to enforce safety commitments. This is the ultimate demonstration of defiance and lack of courage from the mining industry to get behind the standards that regulate the safety of people and surroundings that rule every industry. Everyone must acknowledge that the pursuit of profit cannot be done at all costs.

Recognizing the recommendations of the Expert Independent Panel of Mount Polley, backed up by the UN environment report, is a red line that cannot be put under negotiation. Conversely, the reports issued by mining companies contain no trace of mentions of best available technology (BAT) and, therefore, they have weak commitments that cannot help to achieve the goal of zero harm. Although this is a key step for the mining industry to adopt better ethics.

Assuring independent inspections by third-party bodies that are paid for by companies is not negotiable either. In order to prevent such disasters from occurring again, we must end upstream tailing dams and come up with better studies to monitor suitability areas for waste storage with reinforced conditions, such as augmented distance from surrounding human settlements.

It is about time that everyone starts paying more attention to the voices that are rising from local communities expressing their concerns and warnings for years. Catapa had always joined efforts of warning against the bad impacts of tailing dams located near human settlements and on high slopes.

Undoubtably, there’s the crucial need of developing a coherent disaster management system and emergency response schemes to provide those who were struck by similar tragedies with immediate medical assistance. And in order to achieve this, companies must rebuild livelihood resilience and provide fair compensations for the damaged ecosystem.

Finally, assisting the ones who lost their families with moral and financial support during their period of mourning and grievance is necessary.

Satellite images and pictures displaying the valley around the mining site before (Antes) and after (depois) the Dam failure. Source: UOL Noticias.

Satellite images displaying the mining site before (Antes) and after (depois) the Dam failure. Source: UOL Noticias.

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