On November 5, 2015 two dams holding mine tailings collapsed near the colonial city of Mariana, in the historic mining state of Minas Gerais, Brazil. The dams belong to the Samarco iron mine. One would assume as with the 2010 Chilean mine disaster which buried 33 miners, that the mine was a fly-by-night undercapitalized operation. Very much to the contrary, Samarco is jointly owned by two blue bloods of the industry, Vale of Brazil and British/Australian BHP Billiton. BHP is the world’s largest mining company and Vale the largest iron ore exporter of the world.
Thirteen mine workers who were working on one of the dams were flushed away and twenty local people are probably also dead. The toxic mudslide has devastated thousands of square miles of land and by flowing into rivers has cut the water supply of the downstream population. As of today, it is suspected that expansion work on one of the dams caused the breach.
Fifteen years ago, when I was taking a keen interest in mining shenanigans, I could easily point out the usual suspects of mine disasters. On the one hand, the mine management was notoriously “culturally disconnected” from the eloquent-talking headquarters staff who are responsible for drafting the company’s policies and code of conduct. On the other, a capacity disconnect occurred between the policy drafting entities of the central government and the local mining agencies which are required to oversee implementation and certify compliance. By enhancing their good corporate governance (i.e. corporate social responsibility) and environmental stewardship, mining companies were falling all over themselves to become good corporate citizens. However, environmental protection and social sustainability come at a price: they increase production cost. Although they are in charge of their implementation, many hard hat managers took a dim view of them. Modern mining generates a huge volume of waste, and efficient tailings management is critical to protecting the neighboring population and its environment.
Tailings management was not considered the sexy or testosterone-infused side of mining. This was an area where the occasional female mining engineer would have been employed, notwithstanding her credentials. Employees assigned to the dumps were not as highly paid as those of mining crews and proper training was often lacking. In other words, management regarded tailings as peripheral and tended to give it low priority, with maintenance and surveillance often falling by the wayside. A fact of mining life is that mining dumps occasionally burst. Miners could mimic Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous comment: “stuff happens”!
Low priority was also given by government’s agents who often lacked updated expertise in tailings monitoring, an expertise closely related to civil engineering. Local offices were commonly understaffed, under trained, under equipped and under paid. When dealing with the deep-pocket mining management, public servants were sometimes complacent and negligent, subjected to bullying and exposed to bribes. In other words, surveillance was given lip service. Because too many technical sectors were involved, no one felt personally accountable. When confronted with an accident and subsequent liability, no one took responsibility for it (diffusion of responsibility).
Now, I wonder what has changed!
The mineral-rich State of Minas Gerais is known to have more than 735 mining dams, and some may not be properly monitored. The Samarco mudslide made headlines, but both government and company reactions were very slow at best. Although the causes of the burst have yet to be fully investigated, Vale and BHP have taken responsibility for the accident.
The people affected by the toxic mudslide were pretty much left to fend for themselves, caught between the callousness and misguided decisions of the corporations and the inefficiency of the administrative layer cake. The government will give Vale and BHP multi-million dollar fines, and they will face liability claims also worth millions of dollars. In a country which distinguished itself by a leviathan-size corruption, this money will probably not benefit the victims. They may come to envy the 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days buried under 700 meters of rocks but were pulled out alive by a caring government.
 There many names for the muck produced by mining: “Tailings, also called mine dumps, culm dumps, slimes, tails, refuse, leach residue or slickens, are the materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of an ore”. Wikipedia.
 62 million cubic meters (O Globo, November 17, 2015).
 Donald Rumsfeld is a former US Secretary of Defense. He made this infamous comment on the rampant looting which took place after the fall of Bagdad in 2003.
 Folha de São Paulo, November 7, 2015.