If there was a saving grace to the tailings dam collapse at BHP Billiton’s half-owned Germano mine in the mountains of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, it was that the iron ore waste which has since found its way to the Atlantic Ocean some 600km away was not toxic.
That was the accepted truth from BHP and Brazil’s Vale, BHP’s equal partner in the mine, and the mine’s operating company Samarco. After all, BHP managing director Andrew Mackenzie had seemed to say so, and he’s one of the great geoscientists of the modern era. Last year he became a fellow of the world’s premier scientific club, London’s Royal Society. Past fellows have included Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton.
So when Mackenzie said that the tailings material that hurtled down the valley floor after the tailings dam was breached on November 5 was “relatively inert’’, there was relief all around.
“It’s iron ore, clay, a bit of silica, that has been relatively finely ground. So that makes it less challenging than it might otherwise have been to remediate, albeit it’s a large volume,’’ Mackenzie said after last week’s annual meeting in Perth.
But this week an arm of the UN — one that has a charter of highlighting how human rights can be impacted by acts of pollution — declared the sludge was in fact toxic, so much so that the Doce River system that conveyed the turbid mix of tailings to the Atlantic was considered by “scientists to be dead’’.
A tailings dam collapse in which 12 people died and more are missing, and in which 50 million tonnes of tailings stormed down a major river system on which hundreds of thousands of people rely, is one thing.
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