UN experts slate BHP, Vale for “insufficient” actions on Samarco disaster

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Image credit: Vale Agency

Two United Nation independent experts on environment and toxic waste have urged the Brazilian Government and miners Vale and BHP Billiton to “take immediate action” to protect the environment and communities from exposure to toxic chemicals released from the collapse of a tailing dam at the Samarco iron ore mine.

Image credit: Vale Agency
Image credit: Vale Agency

The accident, which occurred on 5 November, claimed the lives of at least 17 people and injured 30, while dozens were reported missing. Both the mine and the dams are operated by Samarco Mineração, a joint venture between BHP Billiton and Vale.

UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the Special Rapporteur human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak have slammed the Government of Brazil and the giant miners for not taking appropriate measures to put the situation under control.

“This is not the time for defensive posturing. It is not acceptable that it has taken three weeks for information about the toxic risks of the mining disaster to surface,” the experts said.

“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.”

According to the experts, new evidence confirmed that the collapse of the dam triggered the discharge of 50 million tons of iron ore waste into the Doce River, polluting the water with high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.

“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 kilometres,” Mr Knox warned.

He said the toxic sludge from the Doce River was slowly “working its way downstream” towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park, where it threatened protected forests 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,” Mr Knox said.

The pair urged Brazilian authorities to assess whether the country’s laws for mining are consistent with international human rights standards, including the right to information.

“Under international human rights standards, the State has an obligation to generate, assess, update and disseminate information about the impact to the environment and hazardous substances and waste, and businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights, including conducting human rights due diligence,” the expert stressed.

Meanwhile, BHP has downplayed media reports of toxic contents in the tailings released from the Samarco Fundão.

“The tailings that entered the Rio Doce were comprised of clay and silt material from the washing and processing of earth containing iron ore, which is naturally abundant in the region. Based on available data, the tailings are chemically stable,” the company said in a statement.

“They will not change chemical composition in water and will behave in the environment like normal soils in the catchment.”