By Gram Slattery
BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian rescue workers searched for hundreds of people missing and feared dead under a sea of mud after a tailings dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale SA , killing at least 34 people and halting mine operations.
The dam ruptured on Friday, releasing a torrent of mud that tore through the miner’s offices and cut through a nearby town, leaving a roughly 150-meter-wide (500-foot-wide) wake of destruction stretching for miles (km).
The Minas Gerais state fire department, which gave the latest confirmed death toll, also said 23 people had been sent to hospitals. Some 250 people remained missing, according to a list released by Vale.
Firefighters focused their hopes for finding survivors on a bus, a train, offices and nearby homes that were buried after the dam break at Vale’s Corrego do Feijao mine in Minas Gerais state.
Reuters witnesses saw homes knocked over, roadway washed out and a rail bridge demolished by the wave of mud.
Frantic family members of the missing crowded into a warehouse set up by Vale for those affected, next to a stretch of river erased by the sludge. More than a dozen helicopters helping to survey the area took off and landed from a soccer field nearby.
“Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We’re likely to just be recovering bodies,” Romeu Zema, governor of Minas Gerais, told local media.
During a news conference, Zema said the mining complex had all its permits in order and it was unclear what caused the collapse of the dam, which had been inactive for years.
German auditor TUV SUD said on Saturday it had inspected the tailings dam last September and found it to be operating well.
The National Mining Agency ordered Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, to halt operations at the Corrego do Feijao mine, located near the town of Brumadinho.
State courts in two separate actions froze a total of 6 billion reais ($1.59 billion) in Vale’s accounts to eventually pay for damages. Environmental agency Ibama fined Vale 250 million reais for regulatory violations, while state environmental agency Semad fined the miner 99 million reais.
‘IN THE MUD’
The death toll was expected to rise sharply, according to Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of Brumadinho.
Inside Vale’s center for families of the victims, Carolina Oliveira Damaceno said her husband was missing. When a rescue worker came to tell her they were still searching, she fainted and had to be carried away on a stretcher.
“Vale is not telling us anything,” said her mother, Lívia.
Israel offered to send search equipment that could be used to find victims in up to 10 meters (33 feet) of mud, Zema said. Search dogs were being flown in from Rio de Janeiro to aid in the rescue efforts.
All of those missing are Vale employees or contractors, a police spokesman said.
“I know a lot of the affected people: Two sisters-in-law, a cousin, many friends there in the community. They’re in the mud,” local resident Carlos Jose dos Santos told Reuters.
Minas Gerais is still recovering from the 2015 collapse of a larger dam that killed 19 people in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. That dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao SA joint venture between Vale and BHP Group Ltd , buried a village and poured toxic waste into a major river.
The latest dam burst could undercut new President Jair Bolsonaro’s promise to cut regulation in the sector and could make investors already wary of investing in Brazil’s mining sector even more hesitant.
Bolsonaro visited Minas Gerais and flew over the disaster area on Saturday morning. He also dispatched there three ministers, who addressed reporters along with Zema.
Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said on Friday the dam that burst was being decommissioned and its capacity was about a fifth of the total waste spilled at Samarco. He said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan. 10 and it was too soon to say why it collapsed.
The Corrego do Feijao mine is one of four in Vale’s Paraoeba complex, which includes two processing plants. The complex produced 26 million tonnes of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 percent of Vale’s output, with Corrego do Feijao accounting for 7.8 million tonnes, according to the company’s website.
Operations at Samarco, near the town of Mariana, remain halted over new licensing, while the companies have worked to pay damages out of court, including an agreement that quashed a 20 billion reais civil lawsuit last year.
Federal prosecutors have suspended but have not closed an even larger lawsuit against Samarco as they negotiate a settlement.. The latest dam collapse “may completely change the course of those talks,” federal prosecutor Jose Adercio Sampaio told Reuters.
“The company will account for all the damages it has caused,” Sampaio said, adding that the state and federal government also had tighten safety regulations.
“To maintain the current policy on dam safety is to ask for another Mariana, to ask for another Brumidinho, to ask for more cases, because there is a lack of state oversight … we will see one tragedy after another.”
(Reporting by Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by Marta Nogueira in Rio de Janeiro and Marcela Ayres in Brasilia; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes, Paul Simao and Sandra Maler)