Brazil dam disaster: mourning and dead fish along river of mud

Rosa SULLEIRO
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The relatives of victims and the missing hold a vigil in Brumadinho, southeastern Brazil, five days after the collapse of a dam at an iron-ore mine

Five days after a dam collapse at a Brazilian mine, residents were mourning Wednesday the nearly 360 people killed and missing -- as well the river they live alongside, which is dying from spreading toxic, muddy waste.

Helton, one resident, said his 28-year-old wife and his 35-year-old sister both worked at the facility, owned by Vale, the Brazilian company that is the world's biggest iron ore miner.

They are among the 259 missing, presumed dead, who are likely to swell the list of 99 fatalities now confirmed.

"I asked them to leave. And they said no, because they needed the work," said Helton -- who only gave his first name -- adding that rumors of perilous conditions had circulated before the disaster.

Many in and around Brumadinho, the nearest town to the mine, worked for Vale. The community was essentially a company town, tied to what was by far the biggest employer in the area.

They also live in the shadow of multiple dams that have been used by Vale's operation.

"They knew it was going to break. They knew. The boys who worked there were afraid to complain, or they would be fired," said Vanderlei Alves, a 52-year-old driver who lost many of his friends.

The tailings dam -- used to store muddy, mineral-laced mining waste -- ruptured on Friday, sending 13 million tons of sludge across the mine's administrative and cafeteria buildings, where employees were packed in for lunch, and down into the surrounding countryside and the Paraopeba river.

The overwhelming majority of the dead and missing are Vale employees or contractors, buried in up to 15 meters (50 feet) of mud that stretched for 12 kilometers (eight miles) and was at some points up to 300 meters (yards) wide.

Getting to the bodies required painstaking work from Brazilian emergency teams. They had to inch out into the mud and find remains by hand, many of which were then bagged and helicoptered out.

- Vale reacts -

Vale's reputation has taken a severe blow, especially as the disaster happened three years after a similar dam break at another of its mines in the same state of Minas Gerais.

That earlier rupture killed 19 and caused what was considered the country's worst-ever environmental catastrophe.

Vale lost nearly a quarter of its market value on Monday as a result. On Wednesday, its shares clawed back eight percent in Sao Paulo trading after the company announced it was cutting iron ore output and suspending operation of similar tailings dams in Brazil.

"The market had a positive perception of the main points," said Glaucio Legat, of the consulting firm Necton.

CEO Fabio Schvartsman said late Tuesday the dams -- 10 of them, all in Minas Gerais state -- would be decommissioned. He also said iron ore output would be reduced by 10 percent, although Vale said that would be "partially" offset by increased production elsewhere.

The announcement caused the price of iron ore to spike to $87.50 per tonne in the Singapore market, its highest level in nearly two years.

While investors were happier, though, Brazilian environmental authorities and local groups depending on the Paraopeba river were far from reassured.

"I don't want to point the finger at anyone, because accidents happen. But I believe that in this case we need to look for people responsible," said Ana Olivia Jardim, a 19-year-old student.

- River pollution -

There were fears pollution from the mine waste could reach hydroelectric power plants between early and mid-February.

The environmental group WWF said that a forest area "equivalent to 125 football fields" had been lost, and it was still too early to know the full ecological scope of the disaster.

The toxicity of the muddy waste was not yet known. But communities downstream complained that fish they relied on were floating up, dead.

"Most of the people around here are rural river dwellers. So we use the Paraopeba river for food, for fishing, for irrigation, and now we can't do any of that," said Leda de Oliveria, a 31-year-old elderly care assistant.

Helton said he, too, had heard there was "a high pollution risk."

But, he said, "we are not preoccupied with the fish issue right now because we're focused on the search" for bodies.