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What happened at the Germano mine in Brazil?

On November 5th, two tailings (mine waste) dams failed at the Germano iron ore mine in the city of Mariana’s Bento Rodrigues subdistrict within the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

The dam failures left cut off the drinking water supply for a quarter of a million people in the region.

Nine people are confirmed dead, at least nineteen others are missing, and an estimated 500 have been displaced.

The spilled mine waste is now polluting the Rio Doce watershed, killing fish and wildlife.  

Drinking water is now scarce in various cities downstream of the spill. A total of 15 cities face a state of emergency.

Who is responsible for the spill?

The Samarco Mineração S.A. (in Portuguese) joint venture that owns and operates the Germano iron mine is responsible. Samarco is co-owned by Australia-based BHP Billiton and Brazil-based Vale S.A., two of the world’s largest mining companies.

Could this accident have been prevented?


In 2013, an academic report (in original Portuguese | a rough English translation) commissioned by the prosecutor of the state of Minas Gerais warned of design flaws in this tailings dam system, noting  that the Germano mine waste dams could fail under typical rainfall conditions.

The publicly available report, released by the Instituto Pristino, was published around the time the state of Minas Gerais renewed Samarco's operating licence for the dam system.

Pointing to the report on Monday, Carlos Eduardo Pinto, the state environmental prosecutor for Minas Gerais, said the mine spills were “no accident,” but rather the result of mistakes in operation and negligence in the monitoring.

BHP made no comment when asked if the company had been aware at any level of the concerns raised by the report, including whether Samarco’s board knew about the document.

What are the main findings and recommendations of Instituto Pristino’s report?

The October 2013 technical report (in original Portuguese | a rough English translation) commissioned by the prosecutor of Minas Gerais found that Samarco was granted a license even though design flaws in tailings dams and other waste sites had been pinpointed in previous technical reports but not included in the license application.

“Some of the risk mitigation measures should have been conditions to the granting of the licence,” four of the institute's scientists wrote in their seven-page report.

The report recommended geotechnical analysis of the structures and questioning the license granter.

Instituto Pristino also recommended the company submit regular monitoring reports, and found that said monitoring reports should have been presented with the Germano license application.

Who are the insurers of Samarco?

Swiss company ACE is the primary insurer, providing Samarco with 80 percent of its coverage for accidents. The remaining 20 percent is divided between two companies, the Canadian Fairfax and the Spanish Mapfre.

Who is to blame for this environmental catastrophe?

The Instituto Pristino report (in original Portuguese | a rough English translation) points to company and governmental responsibility for the failure of mine infrastructure.

Furthermore, the federal government did not provide a rapid response to the November 5 accident, while Samarco showed it had no contingency plan and was not able to evacuatee people from the cities affected by the tragedy.

Samarco has stated that a small quake affected the dams and possibly caused the accidents, but investigators have not validated this explanation thus far.  Tailings dams are designed to able to withstand minor seismic activity.

The Federal Prosecutor Office of Brazil has opened investigations into the causes of the tragedy.

What has the Brazilian government response been so far?

Ibama (Federal Environmental Agency) fined Samarco a preliminary R$250 million (US$ 65 million) and a subsequent US $262 million.  Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who has compared the mine waste spill to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, has made the employees’ fund (FGTS) available to the people affected.

Water is being supplied and all operations of Samarco (besides emergency activities) have been frozen.

Greenpeace Brazil sent a team to the field to document the spill’s impacts on water supplies and hear the testimony of people who have lost their property.  

What will be the main human and environmental impacts from these dam breaks?

“Many regions will never be the same” — Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais

The impacts from this spill will be felt for years to come.

The spill has cut off drinking water to a quarter of a million people in 15 cities.

Scientists evaluating the damage report fish kills and loss of other wildlife. They are concerned the tailings will alter the course of streams and diminish the fertility of area riverbanks and farmland.

Is this an isolated disaster?


Mine waste catastrophes (a word used advisedly) have been occurring with increasing frequency and severity, and new research shows the rate of both are likely to increase if current trends hold according to a statistical risk analysis of catastrophic mine waste failures since 1910 published in July 2015 by the Center for Science in Public Participation. More findings of the analysis:

  • The rate of serious design failures in tailing dams is increasing. Half (33 of 67) of serious tailings dam failures in the last 70 years occurred in the 20 years between 1990 and 2009.
  • The increasing rate of design failures in tailing dams is propelled by, not in spite of, modern mining practices. The increasing rate of design failures in tailing dams is directly related to the increasing number of tailings dams larger than 5 million cubic meters — capacity needed to allow the economic extraction of lower grades of ore.
  • 11 catastrophic failures are predicted globally from 2010 to 2019. The predicted total cost of these 11 failures is estimated at approximately $6 billion.
  • The average cost of these catastrophic tailings dam failures is $543 million. Regulator attempts to recoup cleanup costs from mining operators reveal — through court records and other official documents — dollar totals for cleanup and recovery.
  • Mining companies cannot afford, and cannot secure insurance to cover, the costs of catastrophic failures: Losses, both economic and ecological, are in large part either permanent and non-recoverable, or recovery — to the extent physically possible — is funded by public resources.

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