Rescuers and firefighters search for victims in the aftermath of the 2019 tailings dam collapse © AFP via Getty Images

Workers at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine were on their lunch break on January 25 2019 when a dam at the site, in the rolling hills of Minas Gerais, ruptured and collapsed.

This unleashed a tidal wave of industrial waste that killed 270 people — the majority mine employees and contractors. Mud swamped a 5km tract of land in front of the dam, while rivers dozens of kilometres away were polluted.

“I lost my [pregnant] sister; I lost friends; my niece never had the chance to be born,” says Josiane Melo, a former employee of the mine who escaped the incident because she was on a leave day.

Named after the local township, the Brumadinho disaster was one of Brazil’s worst industrial and environmental tragedies. It sparked a reckoning not only for Vale, the Rio de Janeiro-based mining group that ran the facility, but also the wider industry and its use of often perilous tailings dams. Such dams are embankments built in mining areas to facilitate storage of the waste — tailings — generated from processing ore.

Large institutional investors, including the Church of England Pensions Board, banded together to demand that mining companies adhere to a new global standard for safety and transparency. Brazilian prosecutors and legislators also successfully promoted and passed new laws phasing out the use of upstream tailings dams.

Today, Brumadinho still seethes with anger and grief; almost everyone knows a victim. Survivors, such as Melo, are sharply critical of how Vale handled the disaster and the subsequent issue of reparations. But those working in the industry say the tragedy has led to some progress.

“Brumadinho was the biggest environmental and human disaster in the history of Brazil, but it brought a historic milestone in dam safety,” says Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto, a public prosecutor from Minas Gerais, referring to the so-called “Sea of Mud, Never Again” law passed in 2019.

This legislation prohibits the construction in Brazil of upstream tailings dams and requires that existing structures be decommissioned. The last such dam in Minas Gerais should be closed by 2035, according to Ferreira Pinto.

View of the Brumadinho dam site in 2024 © AFP via Getty Images
Attendees at the fifth anniversary commemoration of the disaster © AFP via Getty Images

Upstream tailings dams, such as that at Córrego do Feijão, are considered more risky than downstream dams. Building methods used for upstream dams differ from those downstream. The upstream method is cheaper but, experts say, leaves a dam’s structure more vulnerable to instability if the stored waste becomes too wet.

Vale says it has decommissioned 13 upstream structures to date “in line with our plan to eliminate [our] 30 by 2035”. The company has spent R$7bn ($1.4bn) on the programme since 2019.

Vicente Mello, a vice-president with environmental services group Aecom, which is auditing the safety of Brazilian mining dams, says legislators were able to move quickly with the 2019 law because discussions had already taken place following a separate dam collapse in 2015 in the nearby Mariana township. That disaster killed 19.

“What Brumadinho did was to say: ‘Listen, this is bigger than just one site, this is a larger issue’,” says Mello. “Brazil is the only country that has not only prohibited upstream tailings dams, but [said] they have to be removed.”

He adds that the increased scrutiny from regulators and prosecutors following the Brumadinho disaster revealed many more potentially dangerous dams than had been previously identified.

At the time of the disaster, only three mining dams nationwide were considered on any state of alert. In January this year, the number was 92, according to the National Mining Agency.

Mello’s cautious optimism is echoed by Adam Matthews, chief responsible investment officer of the Church of England Pensions Board, which — alongside several large European institutional investors — divested itself of Vale shares following the disaster.

Matthews has been at the front of the development of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management, which sets out best practice in a broad array of areas — from public disclosure requirements to what to do in emergencies and how to engage with affected communities.

“My sense is we’re in a very different place to where we were five years ago,” says Matthews. “A significant part of the industry is now quite clearly committed to a new path of implementing a global industry standard that didn’t exist before.”

“It has required real change in their approach to tailings,” he adds, pointing out that 65 per cent of the industry, by market capitalisation, had committed to the standard — including Vale.

Shortly after the disaster, prosecutors alleged that Vale had been aware of structural problems with the dam and had failed to prevent its collapse. Fábio Schvartsman, then chief executive, was indicted for qualified homicide and environmental crimes. But the case did not progress and was suspended this year, angering families of the victims.

“To date, no one has been tried, despite 16 people being indicted — no one went to prison,” says Melo.

Vale says it has been “continuously improving the management of its mining dams” and that its plan is to have no structure in a critical safety condition by next year.

In 2021, Vale also signed an agreement with the federal government to pay BR$37.7bn to repair “Brumadinho and municipalities affected by the collapse . . . with a view to improving the population’s quality of life”. About 70 per cent of the sum has been disbursed. A further R$3.5bn has been paid as compensation to 15,400 people who signed indemnity agreements with the company.

However, Melo remains critical of Vale’s attitude towards the disaster. “Real reparations are when you admit that you were wrong and go on to write a new chapter. Vale still hasn’t admitted that it was a crime.”

Additional reporting by Beatriz Langella

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