BRASILIA – Mining companies often complain endless red tape makes it hard to do business in Brazil but prosecutors and environmentalists say burst dams at an iron ore mine that triggered massive flooding last week point to gaping lapses in regulation.
The floodwaters and mudflow killed at least two people and another 25 are still listed as missing in a disaster that came two years after a study requested by a prosecutor warned the dams in the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais could collapse.
“It was evident this dam was risky,” Carlos Eduardo Pinto, a state prosecutor who probes the mining industry, told Reuters, referring to the first dam that gave way, leading to the rupture of another.
Pinto is investigating whether a tailings pond, a reservoir for water with mine waste held by the dam, was too full. The dams burst on Thursday at a mine operated by Samarco, a joint venture between BHP Billiton Ltd , the world’s largest mining company, and Vale SA, the biggest iron ore miner.
In 2013, when Samarco was seeking renewal of its operating license, Pinto commissioned a study that found a design flaw in the tailings pond. It warned that an embankment could give way if it became saturated by water.
The Instituto Pristino, an environmental group staffed by researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, recommended the company conduct a dam-break study and draw up a contingency plan in case it burst.
But the state licensing agency ignored the recommendations and renewed the mine’s license a week after it was published, in October 2013.
The state environment office in charge of the licensing agency said in an email the report recommended only industry standards. It did not say whether it asked the company to enforce those standards before renewing the license, though it did say an independent audit of the dam in July this year concluded the structure was stable.
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