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What dam collapses in Europe can tell Brazil

The changes in environmental legalisation to hold the companies accountable is one of the lessons from the European disaster management policies that could inspire Latin American authorities. Español.

Hana Srebotnjak
20 February 2019
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Paraopeba muddy river on Sunday (27/1/2019), after the rupture of the Vale S.A. mining dam in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil. (Photo: Cadu Rolim/Fotoarena/Sipa USA). PA Images. All rights reserved.

What is the value of human life when it stands in a way of profit?

This is the alarming question that comes up when we draw a comparison in responses to the two recent dam collapses in Brazil - the 2015 Mariana disaster and the January collapse of the Brumadinho dam - with their counterparts in Europe, in particular the 1998 collapse of the Los Frailes dam in Aznalcollar, Spain and the 2010 failing of the Kolotovar dam in Hungary.

News of the recent human and environmental catastrophe in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, where, according to the Ministry of Civil Defense, the collapse of an iron ore tailings dam killed at least 165 people with almost 160 people still missing, feels like being transported straight back to 2015. Described as “Brazil’s worst environmental disaster” the then collapse of the Mariana iron ore tailings dam, which killed 19 people, displaced 375 families and is located only about 120 km away from the sight of the recent disaster, evidently achieved little in terms of the urgent progress in environmental laws that would bring more control over Brazil’s huge mining industry and ensure the protection and dignity of human and natural life. 

Like in the 2015 Mariana dam collapse, there is evidence showing that the Brazilian mining ore giant VALE knew of the frailty of its dams in both cases.

Like in 2015, there is evidence showing that the Brazilian mining ore giant VALE knew of the frailty of its dams in both cases. In 2013 environmental agencies such as the Brazilian Instituto Prístino were already showing their concerns over the Mariana dam’s safety. And now, only a few days ago Reuters published an exclusive investigation of a report from October 2018 entitled ‘Geotechnical Risk Management Results’. Conducted by specialist engineers, the report classified the Burmadinho dam as “two times more likely to fail than the maximum level of risk tolerated under internal guidelines”. A point of further concern, as Reuters reveals, is that nine other dams out of the 57 examined were placed in “attention zone”. 

And like in 2015, little has been done to put VALE and the whole of Brazil’s mining industry under stricter control.

Like in 2015, little has been done to put VALE and the whole of Brazil’s mining industry under stricter control. In fact, in both cases the company was just about to significantly expand its production right before the two accidents occurred, while accepting no responsibility for its personal role in causing the damage. In a 2012 ceremony organised by an advocacy Public Eye and Greenpeace Switzerland, VALE was already awarded the distinction of being a corporation with the most “contempt for environmental and human rights” in the world. Constructions in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, resettling families in Mozambique for the purposes of coal exploration, or the expelling of the indigenous Karonsi’e people in Indonesia for constructing a nickel mine, are just some of VALE’s exploits that justified the shameful award. 

Indeed, most of the victims of Brumandinho’s collapse are Vale employees and their families who might receive some sort of compensation for the experienced damage, but in the Mariana case compensations were especially problematic as the victims mainly pertained to the indigenous communities living in the area, such as the Krenak tribe, which was significantly affected by the collapse of the dam. 

Two European precedents

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Los Frailes mine, province of Seville, Spain. Photo: Ecologistas en Acción. All rights reserved.

When the zinc, copper, lead and silver mining dam in Aznalcollar, Spain broke in April of 1998, a deluge of heavy metal spread across nine municipalities of Seville province, including Europe’s most important wetland reserve, the Doñana national park. The environmental consequences of the disaster were enormous: right after the dam’s collapse the entire aquatic life of the nearby Guadiamar river vanished and over 30 tons of dead fish were collected from the shores.

After a significant investment of at least €300 million in decontamination travails, a decade later environmental scientists declared the soil surrounding Aznalcollar to have “recovered reasonably well”. 

Only four months after this encouraging announcement, in October 2010, Europe witnessed another dam collapse. Near the city of Ajka in western Hungary, a collapse of a dyke in one out of the eleven waste reservoirs surrounding the Ajka aluminium plant caused a spillage of red and grey sludge - accumulated in over 50 years of aluminium production - into the area. Ten people were killed as a result of the disaster, several hundred injured and sixteen settlements affected. 

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The 'Red sludge' alumina plant accident, Hungary. Photo: Ministry of Public Administration and Justice. All rights reserved.

Immediately following the disaster, the Hungarian government passed a law that would allow the state to take control over companies responsible for environmental catastrophes. It imposed a thirteen-member board to supervise MAL Hungarian Aluminium, which lasted for almost a year. One of the results of this pressure was the company’s switch from wet to dry technology, a lot safer in terms of protecting the waste inside the dams and capable of preventing a potential collapse of dams on account of natural movements in the soil.  

What happened with the companies operating the dams, the Swedish multinational Boliden Apirsa in charge of Aznalcollar and Magyar Aluminium Zrt (MAL), which owned the Kolontar plant, after the accidents?    

Although Boliden’s culpability for the collapsing of the mine in Aznalcollar could not be proven retroactively, the accident did lead to a reassessment on waste legislation and the need for greater control over waste management across Europe and Spain.

In both cases, the companies in charge of the mining production tried to exempt their culpability by claiming they received all the required permissions from the responsible state authorities. While the Spanish court adjudged that the main cause of the dam’s collapse was the ‘unpredictable defect’ in the structure of the dam, the proceedings in Hungary brought about a more hopeful resolution. The Hungarian court placed primary responsibility for the dam’s collapse to the structural fault of the tailing pond. However, it recognised that the negligence of MAL’s personnel held a secondary culpability as well. In fact, the state liquidated the company in 2013, placed it back into state ownership and arrested its executive director and a few other officials. 

Although Boliden’s culpability for the collapsing of the mine in Aznalcollar could not be proven retroactively, the accident did lead to a reassessment on waste legislation and the need for greater control over waste management across Europe and Spain. Thus, in 2007 Spain passed a law on Environmental responsibility, which includes the responsibility of operators to prevent, avoid and repair environmental damage. 

Following the Kolontar disaster, Hungary proposed the creation of a European Industrial Disaster Risk-Sharing facility. This co-funded initiative would provide immediate emergency relief in case of environmental disasters, as well as promote further research on ecological safety of mines and similar extraction industries.  

The Hungarian state liquidated the Aluminium producer MAL in 2013, placed it back into state ownership and arrested its executive director and a few other officials.

The two accidents, while not completely effective in terms of proving the shared responsibility of extraction industries for the damage, did result in significant changes to environmental legislation and our general thinking on the importance of ecological safety. 

What the two cases showed to be the most significant obstacle in demonstrating the role of big corporations in environmental disasters was the weakness in supervision of the governments that, in many cases, granted the companies with licenses based on insufficient assessments of potential risk analyses. 

The problem here is primarily twofold. First of all, these companies bring a lot of profits to the states and the worry that money will continue to rule the game applies to the case of Brazil in particular. 

Secondly, it shows the state of our environmental thinking especially in the political arena. On account of cuts into ecological organisations and their general budget deficits, environmental safety agencies are often lacking the money and personnel to actually conduct research that would predict potential risk scenarios that these dams pose to our environment. Not only are we in a dire need to provide more funding to environmental protection agencies, we also need a radical shift in our ecological thinking. If we want things to change  - and at this point it is actually about the need to rather than the want to change - we need more ecological imagination, as Leslie Davenport writes in a recent openDemocracy article

The changes in environmental legalisation as well as the attempts of both governments to hold the responsible companies accountable for the damage caused, are some of the lessons from the European disaster management that could inspire Latin American authorities in their actions. 

Furthermore, we have recently witnessed some hopeful developments especially important for countries like Brazil, abundant in natural resources and as such the greatest potential victim of industry profiteers.  

We have seen the power that social movements can have in special circumstances even when the enemy they are facing is unrestrained profits at all costs. Environmental catastrophes affect various different communities and touch upon a plethora of environmental and human rights challenges we are still presently facing. In Chile, for example, we are witnessing the formation of alliances spreading across different movements with indigenous activists pairing up with students and ecological movements pushing for a change. It is in this kind of solidarity that I believe the future of this resistance lies. 

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