The government of Brazil and relevant businesses have been urged to take immediate action to protect the environment and health of communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals in the wake of the collapse of a tailing dam earlier this month.
The collapse of mining company Samarco Mining’s Fundão dam in Minas Gerais released 50 million tons of iron ore waste, contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in the Rio Doce river, according to the United Nations (UN).
Two UN independent experts on environment and toxic waste have prepared a report that cites the presence of toxic materials in the mud affecting communities.
“This is not the time for defensive posturing,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the Special Rapporteur human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak. “It is not acceptable that it has taken three weeks for information about the toxic risks of the mining disaster to surface.”
“The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient. The government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals,” they stressed.
“The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers,” Knox warned.
Meanwhile the Guardian reported that tests carried out by state water agency the Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais found arsenic levels more than 10 times above the legal limit in one place along the Rio Doce.
Samarco Mining, is a joint venture between Vale and BHP Billiton. In a joint statement issued they announced a non-profit fund to support the rescue of the Rio Doce river system
Announcing the Fund plans, the CEO of Vale, Murilo Ferreira, and the CEO of BHP Billiton, Andrew Mackenzie, made a joint statement: “Vale and BHP Billiton are committed to supporting the rehabilitation of those areas of the Rio Doce system impacted by the recent tragedy.”
According to the statement, the actions to recuperate the Rio Doce river system include the recomposition of riparian forest, water quality and aquatic fauna, as well as helping to rescue the biodiversity of the Rio Doce river basin.
On November 28 Samarco said that the turbidity plume now covers an area of 26.7 sq km in the region of the mouth of the Doce River in Linhares, Espírito Santo.
The UN’s Knox added that the Doce River “is now considered by scientists to be dead and the toxic sludge is slowly working its way downstream towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park where it threatens protected forest and habitat. Sadly the mud has already entered the sea at Regencia beach a sanctuary for endangered turtles and a rich source of nutrients that the local fishing community relies upon”.