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On June 1, executives from the Canadian mining company Equinox Gold gave a presentation on the company’s Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG) commitments and their recently released ESG report

Earthworks, and other international organizations, have supported the community of Aurizona in Godofredo Viana, Maranhão, Brazil since March of 2021 when a dam failed at the Mineração Aurizona S.A. (MASA) gold mine, owned by Equinox Gold. This failure has left residents without access to a regular and adequate water supply for over a year.

What we know about the situation in Aurizona shows that Equinox’s ESG rhetoric doesn’t match reality.

The dam that failed was a 7 meter tall sediment retention dam, attached to a pond called the Lagoa do Pirocaua. The failure occurred after an overflow eroded the face of the dam, caused by an influx of water from a nearby mining pit.

Polluted water from the Equinox Gold mine

The run-out of the dam’s contents, which the Brazilian National Mining Agency (ANM in Portuguese) reports contained sediments and rainwater collected for use in mineral processing, sent mud and water flowing downstream into a drinking water reservoir and other local water sources. The ANM ordered the company to stop use of the dam, and the Secretary of State for the Environment fined the company for environmental damages and its lack of an emergency plan. 

The dam failure compromised access to water for nearly 4,000 people downstream. The affected families demanded an urgent potable water supply and the company began to provide drinking water by trucking it in from outside the area. However, the community reported that the water being distributed by the company was entirely insufficient and many community members have had to travel to find other places, like natural springs, to access water.

The company also built a water treatment plant. However, the plant does not have the capacity to supply water to the entire community on a regular basis. Community members report that water is sometimes only available three days a week, and it is often murky colored. On April 19, 2022, impacted communities denounced the company for failing to provide any water in over a month

The water source for the treatment plant is also a concern for the community. One of the main sources is the Juiz de Fora reservoir, even though the Secretary of State for the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMA) has banned the use of water from this reservoir. Water and soil quality studies carried out by five public universities in 2022 found “persistent contamination” in water and soil affected by the mining process and the dam failure. 

The details of this incident are strikingly absent from Equinox Gold’s ESG report, and were not mentioned during their presentation.

Christian Milau, the CEO of Equinox Gold, spoke about flooding and its effects on the water supply in the community but never mentioned the Lagoa do Pirocaua dam or its role in downstream water contamination. He reiterated the company’s claims that the flooding in the area was caused by an exceptionally heavy period, a 1 in 10,000 year storm event. This claim has been debunked by an independent review of meteorological data. Dr. Emerman, an expert geophysicist, found that “based on precipitation records from the surrounding weather stations, the return period of the storm was less than one year.”  Additionally, he noted that, “the root cause of the dam failure was the lack of any inspection and maintenance.”

I found the omission of the facts during the presentation startling and submitted a question in the Q&A chat box asking, “You mentioned flooding in Aurizona, but didn’t mention the failure of the Lagoa do Pirocaua retention dam at the mine site, which was found to be out of compliance with the Brazilian National [Mining] Agency. Downstream communities are still without access to reliable drinking water. Why hasn’t Equinox Gold guaranteed the basic right to water for the entire community of Aurizona or met the community’s other demands like access to water quality studies and remedy for human rights violations, even as the company has increased profits and exploration activities?” However, the moderator omitted any reference to the dam failure and read my question as, “There still seems to be a misconception that the Aurizona village does not have access to reliable drinking water.” During his inadequate response, Mr. Milau re-stated that the company has resolved the water access problems. He claimed, “we’ve had good feedback from the community leaders and the locals” on the company’s handling of the situation.

The Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) has been working with the affected community since the dam failure and they disagree. They told me, “We don’t know who these community leaders are, and we haven’t met them.  None of the community leaders or affected families we have spoken with over the last year and three months have given positive feedback with respect to water in Aurizona, quite the opposite.  We have received daily complaints about skin problems, itching and gastric problems, among others. We were surprised by this statement by the mining company.  This statement seems misleading or based on the company’s rhetoric.” 

Affected community members have organized a series of protests against the company over the last year, demanding reliable potable water, access to water quality studies and technical reports, and funding for short, medium and long-term review of the human rights violations suffered by the impacted communities. In response to these protests, Equinox Gold petitioned the court to file charges against peaceful protesters holding demonstrations on the road leading to the mine. 

Equinox Gold is attempting to gloss over the impacts of their dangerous mining practices on downstream communities and watersheds. By selectively choosing the information presented in their reports and by censuring questions during their presentations, they are not providing the complete picture of their ESG impacts. The investors attending their presentation did not hear the full story about the company’s violations of the internationally recognized human right of access to clean drinking water.  Equinox Gold should immediately respond to the demands clearly articulated by the community of Aurizona and accurately represent its actions in public materials.

Earthworks and partners have organized a petition calling on Equinox Gold to comprehensively address the violations of the rights of community members in Aurizona.  Show your support by adding your name to the call for action.