Mind the Mine
“If you didn’t grow it, you mined it,” I’ve heard said. Many countries of the world heavily depend on mineral extraction to keep their economies afloat. Brazil, the locale for this blog, is no exception. Iron ore is Brazil’s leading export. Brazil ranks third in the world in this regard, just behind China and Australia. Multinational Vale S.A. dominates Brazil’s diversified metal industry. Vale S.A. holds about half of Samarco S.A., an iron ore extraction company.
Around 2002, in the Brazilian State of Minas Gerais, Samarco initiated the Bento Rodrigues mine, an open pit style operation. The iron ore facility grew steadily in size and scope for the next thirteen years. Open pit mines typically produce vast amounts of waste material and contaminated water. Often “tailing dams” are built near the diggings to dispose of the waste material and retain potentially toxic water for eventual release or re-use. As the mine grows, tailing dams do too, being periodically increased in height and width.
In haste to get on with the business of mining, tailing dam safety occasionally gets relegated to a lower spot on the list. Haste may have been a factor when, on November 5, 2015, Samarco-owned tailing dams at the Bento Rodrigues facility failed. Within just a few minutes, 70 million cubic meters of sludge-laden water escaped confinement and headed straight for the small town of Bento Rodrigues just a kilometer below. The result was horrendous. Muddy water nearly 20 m deep flooded the village. In the mucky morass, some 19 people died. Moreover, towns located on the Rio Doce for 900 km downstream suffered from the 17-day trek of the toxic mud’s run to the ocean. Safe to say, litigations will continue for years against Samarco for its failure to “Mind the Mine.”
Please watch my You Tube movie above.
Steven N. Ward Santa Cruz
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John Rundle is a Distinguished Professor of Physics and Geology at UC Davis and the Executive Director of the APEC Collaboration for Earthquake Simulations. He chaired the Board of Advisors for the Southern California Earthquake Center from 1994 to 1996. Read John's blog.