BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Residents devastated by a mining dam burst in Brazil that may have killed more than 300 people reacted on Thursday with indifference and in many cases anger to miner Vale SA’s pledges to pay victims’ families and improve safety.
Members of Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement (MST) protest against Brazilian mining company Vale SA in Brumadinho, Brazil January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado
“Too Late” read newspaper Estado de Minas in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, after Vale, the world’s largest iron ore miner, said it would take up to 10 percent of its production offline and spend 5 billion reais ($1.36 billion) to decommission 10 dams like the one that collapsed at its Corrego do Feijao mine last Friday.
With 110 people confirmed dead and another 238 missing, according to firefighters’ count on Thursday evening, the tailings dam collapse in the town of Brumadinho may be Brazil’s deadliest-ever mine disaster. In recent days, Vale has vowed to keep paying taxes on the paralyzed mine and donate 100,000 reais to the family of each victim.
For some people mourning loved ones, those pledges looked derisory.
“It’s shameful for Vale,” said Dilson Menezes de Oliveira, 58, who stood looking at the spot where his 32-year-old cousin lies buried after the inn where he was staying at was engulfed by a wave of mud and toxic waste.
“So many innocent people died. And now this compensation of 100,000 reais. It’s nothing.”
On Thursday, state labor courts froze more than 800 million reais ($219 million) of Vale’s assets as compensation for victims. That followed court orders over the weekend freezing 11.8 billion reais ($3.1 billion) in assets to cover rescue efforts and damages. The company had around 24 billion reais in cash and equivalents at the end of the third quarter.
A ministerial task force convened by President Jair Bolsonaro began drawing up a unified legislative plan to improve safety, oversight and the licensing of dams.
A person with direct knowledge of the proceedings said the proposals would likely include executive orders and bills in Congress and take at least seven to 10 days to prepare.
Residents in the devastated town of Brumadinho were still learning of the fallout from the deadly mud flow.
Minas Gerais’ state government said on Thursday that initial tests of the Paraopeba River, which was contaminated by the toxic mud, indicated that “the water poses risks to human and animal health.”
It added that locals should not use Paraopeba River water for any purpose.
On Wednesday, United Nations human rights experts urged an official investigation into the incident. Federal and state prosecutors have already said they are seeking to make the matter a criminal case.
After a meeting with Brazil’s top prosecutor, Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman told journalists that he had no reason to think the company’s executives would go to prison.
Schvartsman said the company was focused on paying families as soon as possible, and he had also discussed environmental issues with federal prosecutors. He has said the miner built its facilities to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable.
Chief Financial Officer Luciano Siani said Vale planned to pay some 80 million reais to the municipality of Brumadinho over the next two years, in lieu of tax payments on the mining operations that had been suspended.
Along the mudslide that was once part of the hamlet of Corrego do Feijao, from which the mine takes its name, residents concentrated on trying to put their lives back in order.
“The focus of everything is looking for my brother,” said Pedro Ferreira dos Santos, as he dug into the dirt, looking for his sibling’s body.
“My greatest desire is that he be found.”
In another setback for Vale, the city of Mangaratiba, in Rio de Janeiro, has temporarily shuttered the company’s Ilha Guaíba (TIG) iron ore terminal, CBN radio reported on Thursday. According to the report, Vale was also fined 20 million reais for failing to submit environmental licenses.
The company said it had all necessary licenses and it would take all legal measures needed to resume operations there.
Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Leanardo Benassatto in Brumadinho and Jake Spring in Brasilia; Editing by Christian Plumb, Brad Haynes, Lisa Shumaker and Frances Kerry