Lives destroyed, entire towns damaged, widespread health problems. There is no end in sight to the toll on a region in Brazil decimated by a toxic dam break last November.
BARRA LONGA — The rupture of a mining dam in Mariana on Nov. 5, 2015, was only the starting point of the worst ecological disaster in the history of Brazil. And one year after 40 billion liters of toxic mud killed 19 people and spread out across 650 kilometers of territory, the mining waste that has yet to be removed by the operator Samarco could still make the situation even worse.
With the start of the raining season (which will last until March) comes the risk that the mud will again pollute the rivers, kill fish and marine fauna, provoke drinking water shortages and affect the local population, from Mariana in the state of the Minas Gerais, all the way downstream to the coast of the Espirito Santo state.
In Bento Rodrigues, a Mariana suburb that was mostly destroyed by the mudslide, the mining company, co-owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, decided to build a new dam that will flood part of the land. Samarco says that removing the mud would take too much time and would require difficult engineering.
The Brazilian Public Prosecutor's Office opposes the works, and the company's decision has angered the former inhabitants, whose homes were destroyed in the mudslide. They demand their memories be respected.
After inspecting the affected areas last month, the Brazilian government's environment agency Ibama assessed that it "could not identify any place where the waste was removed." Worse, it said that in some cases the waste had been "incorporated" into the natural soil. In these areas, according to Ibama, Samarco didn't even consider the possibility of removing the waste. The company replied that it was planning to remove one billion liters of mud from the Bento Rodrigues region, and that similar operations along the affected riverbanks were "on the agenda" for upcoming committee reunions.
Across the affected regions, mudslide victims recounted to Folha de S. Paulo how one year later, they still haven't been able to resume their normal lives. Municipal administrations, meanwhile, have seen their finances decimated by the dam rupture.
East of Bento Rodrigues stands the small city of Barra Longa, where roads and homes were devastated as the mud flooded the town. Barra Longa is considered as the "model" for reconstruction. Samarco reused ore here to make paver blocks that are being used to rebuild the sidewalk along the Carmo river that was destroyed in the disaster. The company has also had to rebuild the roads that were destroyed by the subsequent truck traffic.
But the dust and residue left first by the mud and later by all this reconstruction activity has been causing increasing health problems, with people complaining of respiratory and skin problems. Samarco monitors the air quality and insists that everything is within the national norms. Evangelina Vormittag, a pathology doctor from the University of São Paulo studying the impact in the region, estimates that current levels are above the limits set by the World Health Organization.
"Barra Longa seems to be the city with the biggest impact on health because inhabitants were exposed to the mud much longer, and breathed the dust it created — and have been doing so for a year," Vormittag says.
In the days that followed the floods, 14-year-old Bruno Henrique Faustino helped clean the toxic mud off the streets. A few weeks later, dark stains started to appear on his skin. Still in Barra Longa, Simone Silva's eight-month-old baby Sofya started having respiratory problems, something a medical report found to be connected to the inhalation of dust from the toxic waste.
Both families claim they asked Samarco for help, to no avail. "I went to Samarco several times and they kept telling us: "If you have a medical report that proves that she's sick, we'll help you." So I took the report with me, and their response was: "No, you should go to the health services,"" Simone says.
The local health authorities confirm that skin and respiratory problems have increased after the disaster, with cases of dengue fever reported as well.
Evangelina Vormittag says that neither Samarco nor the authorities have solid data on the impact the mudslide has had on people's health. Her own study, financed by Greenpeace in the region and due to conclude in January, does however show already how bodies have absorbed the dust through the skin and breathing.
Among the tens of thousands of lawsuits filed against Samarco, the case of Ana Carolina Almeida is particularly disturbing. When the torrent of mud reached her town of Governador Valadares, three days after the dam rupture, and cut off the city's water supply, the 28-year-old hairdresser had to wait in line for hours to obtain water. Pregnant at the time, she carried gallons and gallons for her family and her salon. She eventually had a miscarriage.
Months later, she filed a lawsuit against Samarco, asking 35,000 reais ($10,000) for emotional damages. More than 35,000 inhabitants of Governador Valadares did the same. In Colatina, a city in the state of Espirito Santo where water supply was also interrupted, another 17,500 people are suing the company.
Some of the region's lawyers have become "experts' in that field. Carla Vilas Boas, 42, who represents Ana Carolina and 200 other people is also a plaintiff in this case. "I remember one day in particular, when I had to work at the office until 8 p.m.," she says. "I then went to where they were distributing water, and I waited until 10 p.m., but there was no water anymore."
With 280,000 inhabitants, Governador Valadares was the biggest town affected by the torrent of mud. And one year later, most people still avoid using treated water. An analysis carried out in July showed that levels of aluminum were higher than legal limits
Along the Doce river, 3,500 fishermen also filed a class-action lawsuit against Samarco. They allege that the mining company and Renova, a foundation created by Samarco and its parent companies Vale and BHP Billiton, have been avoiding the issue of paying damages and instead are only talking about making up for their losses.
"In the meetings we've had with them, they say that they'll pay for the material that was damaged in the disaster," says 44-year-old Cláudio Márcio Alvarenga, president of a fisherman association in Baixo Guandu. "That's fine. But what about the rest? And what about the money I won't be able to make in the future?"