MARIANA, BRAZIL – Brazilian authorities late on Saturday were investigating a second suspected death after two dams at a major mine in the country’s southeast burst and unleashed a massive mudflow that wreaked havoc across more than 80 km (50 miles).
A dozen residents of villages downstream from the burst dams remain missing, along with 13 workers from the mine. Officials warned of a higher death toll even as they struggle to find bodies probably swept away by the torrent.
One death from the disaster was confirmed on Friday, and authorities reported the body of someone believed to be a second victim on Saturday evening. A spokesman for the state fire department said they expected to be able to determine on Sunday if the body is that of one of the missing people.
“The death toll will rise for sure,” said Duarte Júnior, mayor of Mariana. “Some people still aren’t accounted for.”
The city is near the hard-hit town of Bento Rodrigues, whose residents are still providing authorities with names of people believed missing.
City officials released a partial list of missing people, including three children aged 4 to 7 and a 60-year-old woman from the village, which was swamped by mudslides within a half-hour of public warnings after the dams burst on Thursday.
As rescue crews worked during the weekend, Brazilians once again raised longstanding questions about the regulatory rigor and the health and environmental risks of mining, one of the country’s biggest industries and a key driver of exports.
The governor of Minas Gerais, the mineral-rich state whose name literally means “general mines,” has already characterized the accident, which soaked much of the area beyond the dams with mine waste, as the state’s worst-ever environmental disaster.
The mine’s operator, Samarco, is co-owned by the world’s largest mining company BHP Billiton Ltd (BHP.AX)(BHP.N)(BLT.L) and the biggest iron ore miner Vale SA (VALE5.SA)(VALE.N). Clean-up and repairs along miles of flooded river could cost the companies a fortune.
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