World

One year after an iron ore tailings dam part-owned by BHP Billiton burst its banks, locals of a Brazilian village lament ruined livelihoods and uncertain health risks. By Max Opray.

BHP Billiton’s Brazil disaster a year on

Fisherman Zed Sabino in his front yard in Regencia, Linhares, Brazil.
Credit: MAX OPRAY

When local surfer Leonardo Zorzal paddles out into the mouth of Brazil’s Rio Doce, he brings a few Australian brands along for the ride.

He sits atop a surfboard equipped with FCS Fins, and wears board shorts marked by not one but two antipodean companies – designed by Billabong, stained a toxic hue of red by BHP Billiton.

One year ago today an iron ore tailings dam owned by Samarco – a joint venture of the Anglo-Australian company and Brazilian mining giant Vale – burst its banks, sending torrents of sludge cascading down the Rio Doce in what is regarded as Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. The first towns hit by the wall of mud were utterly obliterated, with 19 people killed and about 700 homes destroyed.

Over the next week the iron ore waste continued down the waterway named in the local Portuguese as the sweet river, suffocating fish, smothering thousands of hectares of crops and contaminating the water supplies of at least 250,000 people before emptying into the Atlantic and mucking up Brazil’s most renowned river-mouth surfing spot.

BHP’s eight representatives on the Samarco board were among 26 charged by Brazilian prosecutors in October for crimes that include qualified homicide, and the three companies are also facing charges relating to 12 different types of environmental offences.

This is on top of a variety of legal actions including an ambitious $63 billion civil case based on the payout from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

BHP Billiton argues it is already paying its due via a foundation set up to support victims of the disaster and fund remediation environmental work as part of a now-suspended original $8 billion settlement deal, and will fight the criminal charges on the basis that its executives had no way of knowing the dam would collapse.

The original designer of the dam, Joaquim Pimenta de Ávila, has claimed Samarco ignored his expert advice to conduct maintenance, while prosecutors for the criminal case say the companies involved prioritised profit over safety in a time of falling iron ore prices.

A year on, the ruins of houses remain caked in mud, aquatic ecosystems remain devastated, and a regional economy that was already battling through a Brazilian economic crisis is now having to do so with its primary economic drivers put on indefinite hold.

Zorzal’s surfing home base of Regencia might sit more than 600 kilometres from the disaster’s epicentre, yet even here life has been turned upside down.

Many of his mates abandoned the town they’d been surfing at all their lives, but Zorzal was one of the few who refused to give up the famous minute-long rides on offer, despite the tailings affecting the shape of the wave.

“I was straight back in,” he says.

“Yeah, I’m worried about whether the mud is poisoned like some say, but what can you do? It’s not all bad – at least I don’t have to share the waves anymore.”

Official regional government advice today is to enter the water only on the days when it is clear, but the last holdouts who continue to surf say they’ve never been formally warned about anything, and that even when the ocean appears clean they can still feel the Samarco mud underfoot.

Regencia residents’ association social director Carson Sangarlia says the hurt goes deeper than losing the village’s two economic bases of tourism and fishing.

“It’s turned people against people – those eligible for compensation and those not,” he says.

“It has damaged the morale of young and old. The river and the sea were the playground for the children, and it has been taken away from them.

“For the eldest residents, the river carries the memories of their childhoods, of their grandparents. They see the river as a member of the family who has become very sick, and they don’t know how long the family member is going to stay in hospital, or even if it will die.”

From the shoreline, buoys holding together nets bob in open defiance of the court-ordered prohibition on fishing.

Walking a bicycle laden with nets past signs advertising freshly caught peixe, self-described best fisherman in town Zed Sabino denies that anyone is breaching the moratorium. Eventually he concedes that some continue, but only for “educational purposes”.

“And, yes, some people still eat the fish,” he says. “I believe it’s like this – if the fish are still alive, the problem isn’t so serious.

“People shouldn’t drink the water, but the fish can.”

As a worker in an affected industry, Zorzal is paid monthly compensation by Samarco, but less than a fifth of what he used to earn from fishing, hosting tourists in his guesthouse, and growing rice, beans and cocoa on his river-mouth island – all pursuits ruined by the mud.

“I have to pull my sons out of their boarding school because I can’t do it anymore. It’s as bad as this,” he says.

Sabino reports he has suffered a ringing noise in his ears for the past 10 months, which he blames on the psychological stress of being banned from the activity pursued by his family for generations.

“They took away what I like,” he says, “what’s in my blood – to fish.”

What else might now be in Sabino’s blood thanks to the Samarco disaster is something of an open question.

Studies of the river water have indicated everything from arsenic and manganese contamination thousands of times the safe limits to levels similar to pre-disaster conditions.

Samarco and government bodies are conducting regular tests on the water quality up and down the river and at Regencia’s ocean beachfront, but residents say they are not being updated. Occasional results released online might as well not exist for most who live here – one of the very few with internet access was guesthouse operator Paulo Henrique, but his family’s business had to cancel their coverage in September due to the lack of customers and the cost of bringing in clean water.

“It’s cheap to buy water every now and then, but when it is every day it adds up,” he says.

One person who would dearly love to be kept up to date with water-quality test results is Flavia Almeida, biologist with Project TAMAR’s Regencia conservation initiative for Brazil’s only confirmed nesting site for endangered leatherback turtles.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster the turtle nests were relocated, but have since been moved back and are being closely monitored for ill effects from the mud.

“I would like to know why, not just Project TAMAR, but why the information has not come to the whole population,” she says.

Samarco did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s inquiries regarding water-quality testing, but has publicly maintained that its testing shows heavy metal contamination of the river is within legal limits and that the dam was not holding anything that did not naturally occur in the river system anyway.

Public confidence in the results of official studies is somewhat undermined by the fact BHP Billiton’s partner Vale has made significant financial donations to the election campaigns of dozens of state and federal representatives on committees overseeing the recovery effort.

Greenpeace Brazil climate and energy campaign co-ordinator Fabiana Alves says her organisation is working with researchers from Brazilian universities to conduct studies independent of Samarco and cash-strapped government bodies eager for the resources sector to get back to work.

“Each part of the river basin is controlled by someone different – sometimes city councils, sometimes by state governments. Sometimes they say the water is safe and then the courts overrule them,” she says. “There is a huge lack of information.”

Alves says attributing blame for water contamination to the Samarco disaster is a complicated process as Rio Doce’s history of mining activity means it was one of the country’s most polluted waterways long before the dam burst.

In the district capital of Linhares, about 100 kilometres from Regencia, regional council development secretary Luciano Cabral defends the length of time it has taken to reach a definitive verdict.

“Until today there hasn’t been any specialist or institution that could confirm categorically that this ejection caused any bad health,” he says. “We don’t yet have answers.

“Studies of fish on the coast show some high metal contents including arsenic and mercury, but this type of contamination couldn’t have happened since the time of the disaster – it was there already.”

Nevertheless, he is adamant that most of the population is abiding by the restrictions, although he lets out a sigh when asked about Regencia’s remaining surfers.

“They’ve always been disobedient,” he says. “If they see a wave, they don’t care about anything else. The water could be black and they’d go in.”

The immediate impact of the Rio Doce disaster was obvious enough but, one year on, the long-term consequences for those living on the banks of Brazil’s sweet river are as clear as Samarco’s mud.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "Sold down the river". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.