Broken Dam Causes Environmental Disaster in Brazil

April 27, 2016

On November 5th, 2015, an unprecedented environmental disaster took place in the interior state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. Two dams containing runoff material from nearby mines, ruptured and sent a wave of chemically hazardous sludge throughout the nearby regions. The dams, located in the municipality of Mariana, covered entire towns and wildlife in a thick layer of sludge, and moved its way to the Rio Doce which now runs a deep orange color. The exact number of victims of this accident is unknown, but more than 20 people are missing since the event.1

The dams were operated by the Samarco company, which is owned 50/50 by the Brazilian mining company of Vale and the Australian owned BHP. After the dam burst, Samarco admitted that two other dams in the area are also at risk of breaking and have begun repairing them.3 Unfortunately, this measure comes just a little too late as the affected areas in and near Mariana are in a state of emergency without clean drinking water and many are without homes.

There were no evacuation efforts leading up to the dam collapse, indicating that officials may have been unaware of the potential dangers of the dams. But, the state’s environmental lawyer, Carlos Eduardo Ferreira Pinto, mentioned that earlier in 2013 there were reports circulating clearly stating that the Samarco dams in Mariana were unsafe. It appears that reports were dismissed and workers continued to willfully neglect the dangers of the dams holding toxic waste and the license to keep working was renewed.2 After this catastrophe, the license was then revoked and the company faces $USD 265 million dollar liability fines as well as $USD 66 million dollar fines from the government.1

In a strange move, President Rousseff, who still faces possible impeachment charges, didn’t survey the area until a week after the disaster. Unlike the Chilean president and President Obama, who after the mining disaster in 2013 and BP oil spill respectively, took immediate action to put an end to the disasters. She did little to ensure that the state of Minas Gerais, and the neighboring state of Espiritu Santo (which was later affected by the Rio Doce contamination) received potable drinking water. Instead, many organizations began donating water from across Brazil and finally, more than a week later, the largest city hit by the water shortage, a city called Governador Valadares, regained about 40% of its water supply.4 But, there are still water shortages across Minas Gerais and Espiritu Santo and the environmental effects of the contaminated Rio Doce could affect the land and ocean for the foreseeable future, creating a deserted wasteland where there was once a fertile river valley.


1) Margolis, Mac. "Mine Disaster Reveals That Brazil Has No Leader." N.p., 13 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

2) "Negligence Likely behind Brazil Dam Bursts, Prosecutor Says." Negligence Likely behind Brazil Dam Bursts, Prosecutor Says. Associated Press, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

3) "Samarco Admite Risco De Rompimento Em Mais Duas Das Barragens." O Globo. O Globo, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

4) Braga, Fabio. "Após Sete Dias, água Volta Só Para Parte De Governador Valadares (MG)." Folha De São Paulo, 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015

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Sophia Winston
Sophia Winston is a Spanish and Urban Studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American Studies and a minor in Portuguese. She has spent a semester abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is currently a senior.