Scientists and activists are sounding alarm bells regarding the recent collapse of two dams in Brazil which have interrupted the flow of drinking water for an estimated 250,000 people and damaged the local ecosystem.

On November 5th, two dams burst at an iron ore mine operated by Samarco Mineração SA, a mining company jointly owned by Australia’s BHP Billiton and Brazil’s Vale. The disaster caused the deaths of nine people, with 19 still missing and another 500 displaced from their homes. The dams are known as tailing dams which are designed to hold water and waste from the iron ore mine.

Nearly two weeks have passed since the spill, and environmental damage continues to be seen. Reuters reports:

“The sheer volume of water disgorged by the dams and laden with mineral waste across nearly 500 km is staggering: 60 million cubic meters, the equivalent of 25,000 Olympic swimming pools or the volume carried by about 187 oil tankers.

President Dilma Rousseff compared the damage to the 2010 oil spill by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico and Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira called it an ‘environmental catastrophe.'”

Despite claims by Samarco Mineração SA that the mud is not toxic, biologists and environmental experts disagree. Klemens Laschesfki, professor of geosciences at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, told Reuters that “It’s already clear wildlife is being killed by this mud. To say the mud is not a health risk is overly simplistic.” 

Researchers are currently testing the river water and will publish the results in the coming weeks. There is concern about compounds known as amines, which may have been used at the mine. Air Products, a company that produces amines, states they “are not readily biodegradable and have high toxicity to aquatic organisms.” 

The poisoning of the Rio Doce, or “Sweet River”, is another reminder of the real world consequences of the pursuit of precious metals and other minerals. The river was formerly the home of a thick rainforest which has been populated by indigenous tribes for generations. There are now concerns that the toxic mud will be carried down the Rio Doce and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Financial Review reports that indigenous communities from the area are now protesting the conditions and the mines. Around 650 survivors from the district of Bento Rodrigues of Mariana have been moved to hotels and are awaiting answers. Demonstrations were held in front of Vale’s offices in Rio de Janeiro and in front of the regional office in the capital of Espirito Santo state, Vitoria.

The Krenak nation, who live near the disaster site, have reportedly camped out on the Vale do Rio Doce railroad line, leading to a temporary shutdown of iron ore shipments. Krenak chief Geovani Krevak said the water in the area is undrinkable. “Like us, now the trees and the animals also don’t have any water. The river dies, we all die.”

At least one lawsuit has already been filed against Samarco Mineração. Pedro Eduardo Pinheiro Silva is representing a community association affected by the disaster. His lawsuit is asking Samarco to pay 10 billion reais ($3.69 billion) as compensation for environmental damages.

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