On 5th Nov 2015 a massive dam burst in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s main mining state, and unleashed 60 million cubic meters of mud and mine waste that demolished a nearby village, killed at least 13 people and polluted a major river valley, killing fish and reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
The iron ore mine is owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd.
Ian Curr (Paradigm Shift 4ZZZ fm 102.1, Fridays at Noon) spoke with Weliton Menário, graduating biologist, about the ecological disaster on the ‘Rio Doce’.
Here is an earlier written interview:
IAN: Ok, are you able to talk about what is happening on the ground … in the villages and towns?
WELITON: What I know is: what I have seen in the news and what some friends of mine have seen and tell me.
I do not live in the affected areas. I do live in one of the affected state (Espirito Santo), but in the south (Sweet River is a northern river). I am a student (who is graduating in a couple of weeks) and an administrative auxiliary in a federal institute “Ark of Noah operation” (volunteers that collected fish from the river before the mud arrives and before it destroys them and the volunteers place them in water ponds).
IAN: What are the long term effects of the mud … on humans, animals, plants?
WELITON: The main problem of the high concentration of mud is on is it suffocates the fish for lack of oxygen i.e. they die of asphyxiation.
Also as that mud is a by-product of mining, it is possible that some heavy metals of any other contaminants were drained into the river.
IAN: … So what happens after the mud has washed away or has settled to the bottom?…. will the oxygen return? What happens to the heavy metals?
WELITON: … the accumulation of mud in the river can cause a disequilibrium in aquatic ecosystems in terms of energy production, to be sure we first need to know the composition of the mud, the number of nutrients, increasing the amount of vegetation, and so, reducing drastically the amount of oxygen in the water (because plants also breath at night).
A lot of mud has stuck on the bottom of the river and is having problems being washed away because the river is so dry at this time of the year.
The oxygen is still in the water, the problem is fish cannot take it from the water if it is too muddy.
IAN: I used to test the bottom of creeks for oil and oxygen … research that took a long time … meanwhile BHP Billiton will be working on a legal strategy to frustrate claims for compensation … they will try to drag it out for years and years in the courts … how can people affected respond?
WELITON: About the pollution, some researcher said it is not a big problem, because there is no significant proportion of contaminants in the muddy water. But we cannot trust this without proof.
IAN: how could a biologist know that already … our research in one creek took years and years?
WELITON: The flush of water destroyed everything in front of it. Including the water treatment plants.
IAN: I heard that there were riots because of lack of water in the towns.
WELITON: that is true. the riots were made by the whole Brazilian population.
IAN: What do the people need? water? food? housing?
WELITON: They need everything. The company Samarco commissioned the new survey.
IAN: so is there a possibility of cholera and typhoid? Already?
WELITON: Possibly, but nothing officially released
IAN: Who owns Samarco?
WELITON: Vale (Brazilian company) and BHP Billiton (English-Aussie)half half
IAN: But who are the board members of Vale? just found it … http://www.vale.com/EN/aboutvale/leadership/board/Pages/default.aspx
WELITON: The government applied 5 fines to the company. It was a lot of money. But people are mad for the directors to be put in prison.
IAN: You mean that the people want to put the head of the Board, Dan Conrado, in jail?
IAN: Is there anything you would like to add about the situation?
WELITON: The situation is affecting the many people`s life in terms of economy, especially the fishers (fishermen and women) now the mud is reaching the coast. And that beach is the most famous for surfing. There is also a conservation project of giant turtles that have been affected on the coast.
Probably there is much more, but it is already a lot said.
IAN: Is there coral in the sea nearby?
WELITON: no, just moving life.
IAN: Are there dolphins, whales or sharks? What marine creatures are there?
WELITON: but you know, estuary regions are niches for many species to reproduce. That might affect somehow.
IAN: yes, mangroves provide a habitat for the whole food chain, aye?
Why did the dam burst?
WELITON: I know there some humpback whales that go there some season of the year the main problem is on the turtles breeding and some fishes.
IAN: BHP was responsible for the Ok Tedi mining disaster in PNG in 1999, I think BHP has not learned its lesson sufficiently.
WELITON: But the animal that do not need to stay closer to the coast may have no problems cause sea has a large recovery power comparing to river ecosystems.
IAN: Where do the turtles lay their eggs? On the sand near the beaches at the mouth of the river?
WELITON: Well, definitely not on the sand, in the case, at a beach close to the mouth. Some biologists are working on the ways to protect them.
IAN: Our turtles (in Queensland) lay their eggs near Fraser Island and on Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef (before travelling to Latin America).
WELITON: there is a big project in Brazil called Tamar. Those turtles are endangered.
IAN: Are they endangered by plastic bags and similar objects?
Ours are hit by boats and they also get a bug in their alimentary canal, which makes them bloat, and they float to the surface and die. I helped rescue one turtle with my nephew but it died on the beach … the turtle expert, Col Limpus, said that it was 85 years old when it died.
WELITON: I think every turtle has that problem with plastic bags unfortunately. Well, that`s a shame (about the turtle).
IAN: Turtles are highly protected here … only the aborigines are allowed to eat them. I mean aboriginal people can hunt turtle … I have eaten them at a gathering of aboriginal people … the main species are (1) leather-backed and (2) green turtles, I think. What are these giant turtles in Brazil?
WELITON: We do have a lot of protection laws, but not every one respects (these laws) … also, in the regions where water is more polluted, it has been described as a kind of tumour – it is the main focus of marine biologists.
And yes, we have the leather-backed turtles. We use the same name here too.
IAN: Oh cancer, a very painful death …before we finish … can I ask you if you think the environmental crisis can be solved under capitalism?
WELITON: For me, when there is money involved, people try to minimize the environmental crisis in their speeches to justify not spending money (on the environment). They try to blind people and in most times they do. I mean they mask the real situation.
IAN: How do we contact people in Brisbane to find out the response here to BHP mining (who is, at least in part) responsible for disaster in Brazil?
WELITON: Brasileiros em Brisbane on Facebook. See also
Contact Ian on 0407687016