Brumadinho resident reflects on the cost of mining for her community
Born and raised in the small town of Brumadinho, Brazil, I am an English teacher who had my life devastated on January 25, 2019, when the B1 tailings dam in one of Vale’s mining complexes collapsed, creating a massive wave of toxic mud that destroyed and killed everything in its way.
My sister, Natalia, who worked as an administrative analyst for Vale, was having lunch at the cafeteria at that time with at least another 100 employees. The administrative sector, which included the cafeteria, had been built below the dam and when it burst the sirens, intended to alert the people around and give them a chance to escape, didn’t work.
Few who were there could escape, as they were taken by surprise. Sadly, my sister wasn’t among the survivors.
Like most people from Brumadinho, I had always admired Vale: the company responsible for employing so many people and bringing economic prosperity while caring for the environment. They had always invested so much in creating and maintaining that false image.
On the other hand, I had never heard of the company TuvSud, until I learned months after the fact of their involvement in falsely attesting the stability of the dam in Brumadinho. Later, investigations would show that this was for economic gain.
Both companies tarnished their reputation when their willingness to compromise what they stand for – and deliberately risk lives in doing so – surfaced.
Mining is an essential activity for society and life as we know it. However, such an important and prosperous sector has to operate responsibly, treating the matter of safety as more than just a catchword or a slogan, but truly as the first priority in all operations.
I was perplexed when I discovered that the dam collapse that killed my sister, Natalia, was not an accident. That, in fact, her death and that of 271 others could have been avoided. Death and destruction resulted from a series of managerial negligence that prioritized persisting operations despite the known, unsafe conditions. Above all, death and destruction resulted from the irresponsibility of Vale and Tuv Sud.
The saddest thing is knowing that even if some justice and punishment are achieved, the terrible reality we live in will not change - my parents won’t stop hurting, our holidays and birthdays will never be the same again
As a result of their actions, Brumadinho is, and will always be, tainted with the blood of the worst and deadliest work-related crime in history. For us, the people from this town, it is imperative that what happened is not seen merely as a tragedy or catastrophe, because that camouflages the reality that it was, in fact, a crime, for which 16 individuals and the two companies are being tried for murder along with environmental crimes.
Unfortunately, Brumadinho was not an isolated case; B1 was not the first dam to break, and, if there is no reform, it may not be the last. The consequences of a burst have shown to be everlasting for the families of the deceased, the surrounding communities, and the environment that is destroyed, meaning that there is no reparation possible.
I feel that the experience of losing a sister or someone you love deeply, as I did on January 25 last year, may be as traumatic as a bomb suddenly exploding near you and taking part of your body. You fight to survive, you do all you can for the wound to heal. You take all the medication prescribed and do all the medical treatments available. It can take a long time and no one can tell you how long the process will take, but even when the wound closes, it leaves its scar and you will never be the same again. An important part of you is simply not there anymore – and can never be brought back.
The devastation of Brumadinho was not limited to the lives prematurely taken. Many people lost their houses, their belongings, and a lifetime of memories. Our town also lost the river that was such an important means of survival for many different communities.
I cannot imagine what it is like for the 11 families of the deceased whose bodies have not been found. Sadly, there’s a chance they will never properly bury their loved ones. Moreover, the community has been deeply impacted in both our mental and physical health, and we are fighting to maintain hope for justice and change.
We cannot allow impunity anymore. The pursuit of justice is a long and arduous process in which we have to relive the trauma multiple times. It is burdensome, and the saddest thing is knowing that even if some justice and punishment are achieved, the terrible reality we live in will not change. My parents won’t stop hurting, our holidays and birthdays will never be the same again. For the companies involved, there is also a huge amount of time and resources involved in these procedures.
It is paramount that the horrible consequences of a dam burst are not forgotten; the whole sector must learn from past examples and do everything possible to prevent future ones. For that to happen, the disposal of the mining waste has to be done effectively and safely, and the monitoring of the condition of the existing tailings dams must be efficient and accurate, not manipulated to meet requirements or to please superiors.
It shouldn’t have taken the depredation of Brumadinho for the issue of tailings dams to be finally confronted and no longer underestimated and concealed. Nonetheless, I do hope that it is the catalyst for the mining industry to change forever.
Recently, the first-ever agreement with the United Nations and the International Committee on Mining & Metals on a global industry tailings standard has been concluded, and I urge the sector to abide by it and to pursue more measures to prevent other man-made disasters such as Brumadinho and Mariana from ever happening.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of Mining Journal or its publisher Aspermont Media.
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