A November dam break in Brazil that led to at least 13 deaths and more than 600 people displaced has now spurred a battle of the billions. Brazil is suing mining giants Vale and BHP Billiton for $5.2 billion to cover cleanup costs and damages from the environmental disaster, Agence France-Presse reported Friday. Brazil’s government will file the suit Monday.
The dam’s collapse Nov. 5 led to at least 13 deaths, 11 people missing and the release of an estimated “20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud” into the River Doce, the United Nations said in a recent report. The broken dam was operated by Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture by Vale, a Brazilian mining operator, and BHP Billiton, an Australian mining company that's the biggest in the world by revenue. About 2,000 people work for the operator from the nearby town of Mariana, which has about 60,000 residents, the Economist noted.
A cause of the failure has yet to be determined, yet the disaster has brought attention to lax regulation by the company's and the government. "Does it have the resources to do the job?" Carlos Eduardo Pinto, a state prosecutor who led an investigation in the disaster, told Reuters. "You just have to look at the offices to know." Those offices, most notably Brazil's National Department of Mineral Production, are seen as understaffed and underfunded.
The numbers around the damages, which have yet to be fully determined, are striking. The mud released by the dam break extended about 530 miles down the river, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean. Along the shores of the river, there are at least 3,700 acres of forest.
“It is not a natural disaster, it is a disaster prompted by economic activity, but of a magnitude equivalent to those disasters created by forces of nature,” Brazil’s Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said at a news conference Friday, AFP reported. A full assessment of the damages will take up to four months, the Economist noted.
The dam break has ignited debate over who is to blame and the extent of the damages. Brazil’s lawsuit demands will include creating a fund of 20 billion reais ($52 billion) to support environmental recovery of the area and compensation for victims, AFP reported. That fund would be supported by Vale, BHP Billiton and Samarco, the mine’s operator.
The Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais state has reported arsenic levels in the water are more than 10 times above legal limits, ABC News wrote. However, the federal government issued a statement Thursday saying there was no "increase in the presence of heavy metals in the water and sediments” based on 40 samples taken Nov. 14-18, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Responders have gone to the area to rescue wildlife and assess damages. Nonprofit organizations have saved more than 150 animals, ABC reported.
Vale, for the first time, acknowledged Friday the idea of toxic chemicals in the flooded river. At the news conference, the Brazilian metals and mining company denied that additional toxic elements flooded into the river, the Journal reported. Instead, the company acknowledged the spill may have caused toxins already in the riverbed or along the banks to be disturbed.