26 Jan 2019

300 feared dead in Brazil after dam breaks

8:11 pm on 26 January 2019

Brazilian rescuers are searching for 300 missing people after a tailings dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale SA, with nine bodies recovered but the death toll expected to rise sharply.

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Rescuers search for victims after the collapse of the dam. Photo: AFP

A dam collapse at an iron-ore mine in southeast Brazil has left at least nine people dead and some 300 others missing, officials say.

The break caused a sea of muddy sludge to spread across rural areas of Brumadinho, in Minas Gerais state, burying buildings and vehicles.

Emergency teams rescued scores of trapped people by helicopter. Rescue teams used earth-moving machinery at the site.

Governor Romeu Zema said there was little chance of finding people alive.

The accident comes just over three years since a dam burst in another town in Minas Gerais, killing 19 people.

Many of the missing are workers who were having lunch in the dam's cafeteria which was buried by the sludge.

It is not clear what caused the dam - owned by Brazil's largest mining company, Vale - to break.

What do we know so far?

The dam near Feijão iron ore mine burst its barrier at around lunchtime local time on Friday, flooding another dam down below.

Built in 1976, the dam was one of several in the area and it was used to hold residue from the mine.

It had capacity for 12m cubic metres and had been an inactive site for three years, according to Vale. It is not yet known how much waste was released.

Leaked tailings from the mine spread into the nearby community of Vila Forteco, close to Brumadinho.

Residents in low-lying areas have been evacuated, many of them by helicopter.

"We do not have more details because everything is happening very fast," Brumadinho Mayor Avimar de Melo said.

"Our main worry now is to quickly find out where the missing people are," he told television channel GloboNews.

Some 100 rescuers are searching for the missing with 100 more expected to join them.

On Twitter, President Jair Bolsonaro called it a "serious tragedy" and said he would visit the region on Saturday. The ministers for the environment, mines and energy, and regional development were travelling to the scene.

Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman called it an "enormous tragedy". He said a German company had been hired to assess the dam and that the last report from September indicated that it was stable.

The firm has said it was monitoring all its other dams for any risk of collapse.

Previous collapse involves the same company

On 5 November 2015, a dam - also owned by Vale, along with BHP Billiton - burst at a Samarco mine in Mariana, in Minas Gerais.

More than 60 million cubic metres - enough to fill 20,000 Olympic swimming pools - spilled over into the surrounding area.

The incident is considered Brazil's worst environmental disaster.

After a lengthy court case, BHP Billiton and Vale reached a settlement worth at least 6.8 billion reais ($NZ2.6b) with the Brazilian government.

Avimar de Melo Barcelos, the mayor of the town of Brumadinho where the dam burst, said seven bodies had been recovered by nightfall. Fire brigade spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Aihara said the torrent of mud stopped just short of the local Paraopeba river, a tributary of Brazil's longest river, the Sao Francisco.

"Our main worry now is to quickly find out where the missing people are," Mr Aihara said on GloboNews cable television channel.

The Feijao mine is one of four in Vale's Paraoeba complex, which includes two processing plants and produced 26 million tonnes of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 percent of Vale's total output, according to information on the company's website.

Feijao alone produced 7.8 million tonnes of ore in 2017.

- Reuters / BBC