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Are we going to sit back and wait for the next mine waste disaster?

Bento Rodrigues

The village of Bento Rodrigues was swamped by toxic mine waste in November. Senado Federal under a Creative Commons Licence

‘If the dam had collapsed at night, everyone would have died.’

These chilling words came from Duarte Junior, a mayor of a city downstream from Samarco mine waste dam that failed last month in Minas Gerais, a state in southwestern Brazil.

The village of Bento Rodrigues was swamped by toxic mine waste on 5 November; 16 people died and over 600 people lost their homes. The dam collapsed in the afternoon, and most evacuation occurred by word of mouth as people saw the waves of waste coming. The town had no alarm system, and despite being situated below a giant earthen mine waste dam, did not have an evacuation plan.

After destroying the town, the waste continued downstream, swamping the Doce River and, two weeks later, made its way to the Atlantic Ocean, further damaging the already struggling river. Lifelong resident Nilo Candido da Silva told Reuters: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever see it go back to normal,’ after watching the river rise with the reddish-brown mine waste and then sink to a brown trickle laden with mine waste sediment.

Even as beleaguered Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff promises justice, and has sued for long term clean up funds, Vanessa Barbara writes in this week’s New York Times that mine co-owners Vale and BHP Billiton may not need to worry, as Brazil is notorious for failing to enforce environmental laws and enforcing actions against violators.

Why does it take a disaster to draw our attention to risk? The Doce River joins a growing, bleak list of rivers forever harmed by mining. The Mount Polley mine’s waste dam in British Columbia (BC) breached in 2014 upriver of the great Fraser River salmon run; the salmon are struggling, as are the First Nations and fisherfolk who depend on them. In August in Durango, Mexico, a mine dam overflowed, spilling two billion cubic meters of water laced with cyanide into the La Cruz creek and river.

As mines grow, so do their piles of waste, to such massive proportions that the world’s largest dams are needed to contain them. And as those dams age, they fail. Scientists tell us that we can expect many more mine dam failures in coming years, putting rivers and ecosystems downstream at risk.

After the Mount Polley disaster, a panel set up by the BC government issued recommendations for tailings dams. Earthworks and partners around the world are calling on governments and industry to implement them. But no matter what actions others take, the United Nations should bring all stakeholders together to hammer out a common agreement on how to deal with these catastrophes in the making, and publicly pressure them into making it stick. Recently published research of mining waste impoundment failure trends shows that – without concrete action – more of these disasters are on the way, and they’re getting more destructive.

You can join the campaign to prevent future mining disasters. Add your voice to the global demand that the mining industry takes action.

Jennifer Krill is the Executive Director of Earthworks.

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