Brazilian Mining Tragedy Is Cautionary Tale for Pebble Mine

Catastrophic tailings dam failure in Brazil leaves 99 dead, more than 250 missing

Mining can result in horrific human and environmental tragedy. Mining disasters also highlight the hollow promises companies makethat they can somehow engineer a “safe” mine.

Last week, a tailings dam collapsed at an iron-ore mine in southeastern Brazil, killing nearly 100 people and leaving hundreds missing.  Rescue workers at Vale S.A.’s Corrego do Feijao mine expressed “little hope” of finding survivors.

This is Brazil’s—and Vale’s—second major mining disaster in recent years.

In 2015, a tailings dam failed at an iron-ore mine owned by Samarco Mineração S.A. That company is a joint venture between Australian BHP Billiton and Brazilian Vale S.A., two of the world’s largest mining companies. It caused a toxic mudslide and swept away the entire town of Bento Rodrigues. Called Brazil’s “biggest environmental disaster” at that time, and an “environmental catastrophe,” the Samarco dam failure killed 19 people and left a dead zone of polluted water, crippling the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents.

Those mining tragedies follow the Mount Polley mining disaster in August of 2014. A dam at Imperial Metals’ gold and copper mine in British Columbia gave way, spilling billions of gallons of mining waste in what was called the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history. 

Three days later, 1200 miles south at the Buena Vista mine in Sonora, Mexico, 10 million gallons of mining acid spilled into the Bacanuchi River, shutting down drinking water supplies, closing schools, and affecting an estimated 800,000 people.

In each of these cases, dams holding back tailing ponds collapsed—gushing toxic mining sludge and other waste into the surrounding areas.

Mining companies promised it wouldn’t happen—that a modern mine with advanced technology could be engineered to withstand the inherent dangers of mining in perpetuity.

But modern mines can and do fail. This one failed after only 43 years. The Samarco mine failed after only 42 years. The Mount Polley mine in Canada failed after only 17 years. And the Buena Vista mine in Mexico failed while under construction.

According to Vale, the Corrego do Feijao dam’s safety rating was “in accordance with the world’s best practices” and exceeded safety standards in Brazil. The dam—built in 1976 and bought by Vale in 2001—was inspected and certified as safe in both June and September 2018. It was in the process of being decommissioned.

In an interview last Sunday, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman stressed the company’s compliance: “We are 100 per cent within all the standards, and that didn’t do it,” he said.

“I apologize for what happened. If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t,” said Brian Kynoch, the President of Imperial Metals after the Mount Polley disaster in 2014.

Just one year before the Mount Polley breach, Knight-Piesold—the designer of the failed tailings dam—praised its own engineering design for the Pebble Mine:

“Modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.”

The designer of the failed dam—Knight-Piesold—is currently designing the dams for Alaska’s Pebble Mine.

Tom Collier, the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, claims his company’s engineers are “convinced that there will never be a failure at Pebble.”

Following last week’s disaster in Brazil, three Vale employees and two contractors have been arrested. Vale says it is fully cooperating with authorities and will decommission dams similar to the one that collapsed. It also plans to donate 100,000 reais ($37,350) to each family that lost a loved one.

This is a woefully inadequate response to a catastrophe.

Residents have reacted with shock and anger, according to ABC:

‘Vale is destroying Minas Gerais,’ said Robinson Passos, 52, who lost a cousin and friends to Vale’s latest mining disaster. ‘There’s anger, sadness, everything,’ he said, holding back tears as he surveyed the destruction.

At the time of the accident, the tailings dam contained nearly 12 million cubic meters of tailings. That’s about 100 times smaller than even the smallest tailings containment proposed for the Pebble Mine.

Think of what a Pebble Mine disaster would do to Bristol Bay—its indigenous communities who rely on subsistence fishing, its $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery that supports 14,000 jobs, and the people, businesses, and wildlife that rely on the prolific salmon runs. According to a three-year, twice-peer reviewed scientific study by the EPA, a tailings dam failure at Pebble would be “catastrophic.”

Mines can and do fail.  There’s no denying it.  Too often, they fail to live up to the mining industry’s assurances of infallibility.  They fail the test of time.  And when they do, they fail the surrounding communities whose residents are the inevitable victims of catastrophic containment failure.

We cannot afford a tailings dam failure at the Pebble Mine.

Some places on Earth—like Bristol Bay—are too special, too invaluable, too irreplaceable to entrust to the hands of an inherently dangerous mining industry.

Bristol Bay is the wrong place for the Pebble Mine.

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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