Recently, Brazil has experienced one of the worst mining disasters in the country’s history. A dam holding tailings (unwanted waste material created during mining) of mud and pieces of iron ores broke in the Parque de Cachoeira community causing the tailings to fall on workers. The collapse of the dam also caused iron ore tailings to spread around nearby streams and habitats. So far, Vale, the company owning the mines and the dam itself, and rescue forces have recovered over 160 victims from the site. However, 200 bodies are still missing. As for the environmental damage, Rio Paraopeba, the closest body of water to the accident, was polluted with iron oxide, which is extremely toxic to organisms and to humans. This environmental damage does not only affect the biodiversity in the surrounding area, but it also affects the inhabitants since they rely on fish for their businesses.
Due to the Brazilian government and and Vale neglecting to adequately inspect the site, insufficient precautions were taken to prevent the breakage. Last year, the Brazilian government only inspected 3% of dams out of over 24,000. The lack of inspection allows companies to take advantage of rivers and establish poor working conditions. The structure was not inspected in the last decade, and employees had knowledge of the dam’s instability. Therefore, the contracts and inspection documents were falsified to continue production in this area. So far, 8 employees have been arrested because of falsifying the documents.
The dam collapse has not only affected the lives of the villagers permanently, but it also has impaired the population of marine species in Rio Paraopeba and the surrounding vegetation. The river helps irrigate nearby fields with products used for human consumption, but now that the water is polluted, the vegetation is poisoned. Not only is the vegetation threatened, but so it the biodiversity in surrounding ecosystem. Rio Paraopeba’s ecosystem contains 64% of all fish species in the world, which can only be found in this area, and overall, 10% of the organisms in the area are considered endangered. In addition, due to the iron oxide poisoning, fish are dying at an alarming rate, which affects the economy of the communities that rely on these organisms (such as the curimbatás and surubins) for a living.
How Does Iron Oxide Affect Human Health?
Iron oxide can cause chronic and acute diseases in humans. Chronic effects (which means exposure to the chemical for a long period of time) can involve eye discoloration and shortness of breath, which includes asthma. Some acute diseases can involve flu-like illnesses. However, medical professionals worry that the flu-like symptoms can evolve to chronic illnesses. One of the major concerns is that the animals and vegetation humans could be consuming in the future will be polluted from this affected area. If some fish still contain iron oxide in their system, it can biomagnify to humans, which increases the iron oxide concentration in a person’s body.
Another way the collapse is affecting the southern Brazil economy is the mud’s effect on the hydropower plants. Large volumes of the mud produced from the mud collapse are slowly moving its way toward the hydropower plant, Retiro Baixo, from Rio Paraopeba. The volume of the mud is expected to impair profits for an entire year since the company is expected to lose up to 60 million dollars. The waste created by the tailings and ores is in very large volumes and hydraulic engineers believe it can damage and contaminate the equipment. The “interruption period,” however, will not stop the company from continuing to generate some electricity since it is costly to halt all activity. But the company owning the power plant is reconsidering their decision as the amount of mud and waste headed their way is in greater amounts than expected.
In conclusion, so far, Vale has been ordered to pay over 1 billion dollars to help restore the land, rivers, and communities that have been destroyed and permanently (as well as economically) affected. However, the number of lawsuits is expected to rise as the damage is assessed. As of now, over 17 employees are being held for questioning. While performing illegal acts may have gained the company some small profits because they never stabilized the dam correctly, in the long run, it cost them 19 billion dollars. However, it cannot be forgotten that the major consequence of the illegal acts were the lives lost of innocent civilians and how it permanently affected Rio Paraopeba’s community, economy, and ecosystems.
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