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MINE1010 Assignment 2

Every year mining disasters lead to loss of thousands of lives and damage of our pristine
environment. An incident struck brazil in 2015 when a tailing dam owned by Samarco
Minerao S.A.; a joint venture between BHP Billiton Brazil Ltda. and Vale SA; overflew
flooding nearby communities with dangerous mine tailings. This essay provides a scrutiny of
the tragic events backed by detailed research. The essay aims to establish who was to blame
for the accident by discussing some of the facts that preceded the accident. Furthermore, the
essay aims to discuss some of the environment concerns arising from the incident and how to
prevent a similar accidents in the future.
The mining operation in Brazil is joint venture between BHP Billiton Brazil Ltda. and Vale
SA under the name of Samarco Minerao S.A. The operation was founded in 1977 in Belo
Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil (Samarco 2015). This area is highlighted on the map of
Brazil in figure 1 below. The operation mainly undertakes mining of iron ore pallets. The
Samarco operation has production capacity exceeding 21 million tonnes of iron ore pallets
and one million tonnes of concentrates. Samarco operation comprises open pit mines, a
concentration plan, port facilities, pellet plants and 396 km concentrate slurry pipelines (BHP
Billiton 2015).

Figure 1: Site of Dam Burst (The Guardian 2015)

The Samarco complex comprises of three levels of tailing damns. On November 5, 2015 the
middle dam known as Fundo dam failed resulting in overflow of mine tailing which flooded
nearby community of Bento Rodrigues and many others (BHP Billiton 2015). Atleast 12
people are confirm dead and many are missing (Kiernan 2015). According to Timson (2015)
the tailing has already polluted more than 600 km of river system and has reached the
Atlantic Ocean. A sample of the tailing taken from the discharge was found to have thousand
times higher arsenic, manganese and other heavy metal concentrations.

Figure 2: The trail of mine tailings (Science Magazine 2015)

According to Ali (2015) the cause for the disaster is not yet confirmed however the
investigation panel concluded that the dam failed due to negligence in the planning process.
According to the panel the engineering plan neglected a layer of glacial till beneath the dam
body. Glacial till has previously caused a mining disaster of Mount Polley Dam in 2014
(Rivers Without Borders 2015). This past failure should have influence Samarco to take
preventive measure to prevent this tragedy. Furthermore, Edwards and Laurance (2015)
argues that in tropical climates huge quantities of rain oftern fall in short time period. This
dictates the need for specially designed tailing dams and infrastructure that can withstand
large quantities of water. The engineering plan was also found to have overlooked this in the
case of Samarco.
The disaster has lead to many short term and long term environmental concerns. As
mentioned before the samples of polluted water has shown high levels of arsenic, zinc,
coppers and mercury making it untreatable for human consumption. Mercury is neurotoxic
and can cause structural damage to human brain (ABC 2015). ABC (2015) also outlines a
major concern with heavy metal pollution on aquatic environment. The problem is
biomagnification in which a small fish with small quantities of pollutants such as mercury is
not a problem but when a larger fish which eats hundreds of small fish they can end up
having hundred times larger concentration of pollutant. This problem is very hard to control
in aquatic environment. According to Brazils national water agency ANA, the lack of
oxygen and high temperatures has already killed off most of the aquatic life on 500 km
stretch of the river (Douglas 2015). Scientists claim that chemicals used to reduce iron ore
impurities can alter the streams as they harden and ultimately diminish water oxygen
concentration decreasing fertility of farmlands in the water path. Authorities are also fearing
for the presence of a compound called ether amines which is used to produce better quality
final product. According to manufacturers of these compounds, they are not biodegradable
and are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Furthermore, they rise the PH levels to a point
where they can be harmful for the environment (Eisenhammer 2015). These evidences
suggest that the damage to the environment is extreme and the environment may take several
years to reach the normal state.

Facts and circumstances suggests that the disaster was definitely preventable. As outlined
above, the negligence in engineering plan definitely played a big role in starting the disaster
which could have been avoided. Furthermore, Phillips (2015) claims that the mine also
lacked modern technologies that are used for effective monitoring of dams such as radar and
laser monitoring. There are also reports of government negligence. The National Department
of Mineral Production, who is responsible for checking dam safety did not visit the dam
because it considered it to be low risk (Phillips 2015). The failure of Safety regulations is also
evident with five dam breaks that Minas Gerais has suffered over the last decade (Phillips
2015). Furthermore, a report published in 2013 had warned of the dam design flaws which
BHP claims that it had no idea of (Saunders et al. 2015). The loss of life was also result of
negligence to some extent. The town of Bento Rodrigues was very close to the mine site and
still no alarm system was present to warn of the emergency. Ali (2015) argues that a good
emergency system would automatically turned on alarms, sent mobile text messages and used
other mediums of broadcast such as TV and radio. But this clearly didnt happen in this case.
The blame for the accident cannot be attributed to a single person or organization. Samarco is
a limited liability company owned by BHP and Vale. According to Ali (2015) companies like
these are set up to minimize liability risk by the parent company. However current regulation
will still hold parent companies liable for the damage. To some extent some of the blame
should also be attributed to government as the regulation and lack of safety checking as
outlined above. Brazil had already sued BHP and Vale for $7.2 billion and has demanded
10% deposit in a months time from Samarco. Brazils environmental agency has already
fined Samarco $90 million (ABC 2015). The money is intended to be used for clean up and
containment as well as relocation of the communities (Grandhi 2015).
Disasters like this could be prevented in future. From the regulatory side Edwards and
Laurance (2015) argues that many countries require mining companies to pay bonds to allow
for future cleanups but this is generally not the case in tropical countries such as Brazil as
mining is the major source of countries GDP. In future this must be changed and
government must demand a bond to aid in cleanup and limitation of the spread of the
pollutants in case a disaster like this strikes. The panel which investigated a similar tailing
disaster of Mount Polley has also came up with some recommendation to prevent such
disasters (Rivers Without Borders 2015). This included using best available technologies
such as filtered and dewatered tailing, a detailed evaluation of all failure modes, a thorough
risk management analysis and having independent review board for third party advice on
design, construction and operation of tailing dams (Rivers Without Borders 2015). Samarco
and many other companies should definitely take a note of these recommendations and strive
to meet the requirements. Furthermore, Samarco and similar companies should also
implement emergency evacuation plans for the communities in close proximity of their mines
to minimize the loss of lives.
In conclusion Brazilian mine disaster was a tragic accident which was result of negligence of
both authorities and government. The disaster has left many short term and long term
environmental damage concerns. As a result, the environment will take years to return to

normal. Disasters like this could be prevented by learning from history and investing in safety
system. In future this disaster will hopefully influence other mining companies to take
responsibility and undertake preventive measures to save thousands lives.


ABC. 2015. Brazil sues BHP Billiton, Vale and Samarco for $7.2 billion over mine disaster.
[ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Ali, S. 2015. Who should we blame for the Brazil mining dam disaster?. [ONLINE]
Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
BHP Billiton. 2015. Perguntas frequentes. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16
December 2015].
BHP Billiton. 2015. Iron Ore. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 December 2015].
Douglas, B. 2015. Brazil's slow-motion environmental catastrophe unfolds | World news |
The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Edwards, D. Laurance, W. 2015. Preventing tropical mining disasters, Science. [Online],
Available at: [Accessed 16
December 2015].
Eisenhammer, S. 2015. Brazil mining flood could devastate environment for years.
[ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Grandhi, K. 2015. Brazil dam disaster: Government to sue Samarco and its shareholders,
BHP Billiton and Vale. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20
December 2015].
Kiernan. 2015. Brazil Dams Failure Flooded Region With Toxic Waste, U.N. Report Says.
[ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Phillips, D. 2015. Brazil's mining tragedy: was it a preventable disaster? [ONLINE]
Available at: [Accessed 19 December 2015].

Rivers Without Borders. 2015. Mount Polley Mine Report Shows

Inherent Risks of Watered Tailings Impoundments [ONLINE] Available at:
us_dams-2015_04.pdf. [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Samarco. 2015. Samarco [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 16 December 2015].
Saunders, A. Timson, L. Stevens, M. Thomson, J. 2015. Experts warned deadly BHP Billiton
dam had flawed design. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Science Magazine. 2015. The environmental impact of a recent mud tsunami in Brazil.
[ONLINE] Available at:
[Accessed 20 December 2015].
The Guardian. 2015. Brazil dam burst: at least 15 feared dead after disaster at BHP-owned
mine. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].
Timson, L. 2015. BHP-Vale Samarco dam: Mud reaches Atlantic in Brazil's worst
environmental disaster. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2015].