Contaminated mudflow from a catastrophic dam collapse in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais is spreading along the Brazilian coast, with Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira warning of “the worst environmental disaster Brazil has ever faced”.
The mud has travelled 650 kilometres down the Rio Doce river from the Fundão iron mine where a tailing dam, designed to hold waste from iron mining, burst on 5th November. Sixty-two million cubic metres of mud were released, destroying the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues and leaving at least 12 people dead and a further 11 missing.
The mine is operated by Samarco, a joint venture between Brazilian company Vale and Anglo-Australian mining giants BHP Billiton.
Images showing a massive area of reddish-brown mud off the coast of Espírito Santo state went viral yesterday on social media as local authorities cut off access to the Regência and Povoação beaches.
A 10km stretch of the Brazilian coast is currently affected, but it is predicted that this will grow to 40km as the mud moves up the coast. Biologists warn that it could take 30 years to clean up the river basin.
Over 280,00 people remain dependent on bottled water, after the national water agency banned the use of water from the Rio Doce following contamination fears from mud, which contains toxic levels of mercury, arsenic, and chromium.
The mud could also severely reduce oxygen levels and alter the water’s pH, threatening aquatic life including fish, turtles, whales, and dolphins. Fears have been raised over the risks to the Comboios nature reserve, which for 35 years has been a protected-nesting ground for the endangered leather-back turtle and which lies in the path of the mudflow.
“I don’t know what to say,” Joca Thome, coordinator of the turtle protection agency TAMAR, told local media yesterday after flying over the mudflow in a helicopter. “It’s terrible. It’s a calamity. It looks like brown gelatine spreading into the sea”
Minister Texeira highlighted the risks to local economies, saying, “We have to attend to the workers whose livelihoods are based on the river, like the fishermen. They need help and we are giving it to them.”
Dead fish began washing up on the coast on Sunday, and the State Institute for the Environment (Iema) has warned that the few fish who have survived are too weakened by pollution to repopulate the river.
Samarco has erected 9km of floating barriers to protect the river bank and is contracting local fishermen to bury dead fish and diggers to widen the mouth of the river, allowing the mud to disperse into the sea as quickly as possible.
The company has been fined US$66m by Brazil’s Federal environmental agency and will contribute US$250m in cleanup costs.
Fears have been raised that the rain season, which lasts until March, may aggravate the situation as more mud which remains lodged near the site of the collapse and could be washed into the river by rain.