MARIANA, Minas Gerais, Brazil, November 6, 2015 (ENS) – Two people are dead and at least 13 others are missing after two tailings dams collapsed Thursday at an iron mine near the rural village of Bento Rodrigues in the state of Minas Gerais.
The Fundão and Santarém dams belonging to the mining company burst November 5 at around 4:30 in the afternoon, flooding the area with mud, solid waste and water residue from mining operations.
The Fire Department of Minas Gerais reported today that it has rescued more than 500 residents caught in the collapse of the dams. A total of 105 firefighters and 20 service vehicles are in Bento Rodrigues, 23 kilometers from the closest town, Mariana.
The Minas Gerais Fire Department reported that four of the injured – two adults and two children – were rescued and taken to a hospital in the state capital, Belo Horizonte, about 100 km (60 miles) away.
It is not yet possible to confirm the number of victims and missing persons, authorities and the company said.
Three helicopters are assisting the rescue efforts, and two backhoes are being used to clear the way to the most impacted locations.
Tailings dams are designed to contain solid waste and water from mining operations. Samarco said in a statement that the waste is inert, consisting mostly of sand resulting from iron ore processing, and contains no hazardous chemicals.
Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi said the company is mobilizing to prioritize the care and health of the people who were working at the site or living near the dams, as well as taking action to contain the environmental damage. The company has sent seven helicopters to the rescue.
The injured are being taken to hospitals in the city of Mariana and other nearby municipalities. Some of those left homeless are being sheltered in a Mariana gym, where teams are providing aid.
Samarco says that it has housed 569 displaced people in hotels and guesthouses. It has provided 600 emergency kits, consisting of mattresses, sheets, towels, blankets and personal hygiene materials, 3,800 snacks and meals and 10,000 bottles of water.
There are four Samarco dams: Germano, Fundão, Santarém and Cava Germano. The company says all four have operating licenses granted by the regional environmental authority.
The last government inspection took place in July 2015 and indicated that all four of the dams were safe, the company said. Samarco also performs its own inspections, as required by the federal law on dam safety. The 12:00 am shift operations team is expected to report maintenance conditions and identify any abnormality immediately.
Vescovi said the mining company does not yet know why the dams collapsed. “We appreciate the help of the society and the expressions of support that have been directed to those affected by the disruption of the Fundão dam and Santarém,” he said.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff said the government will investigate the causes of the dam collapses and identify who is responsible for the disaster.
Via Twitter, Rousseff sympathized with the victims and their families.
“The armed forces, the Army in particular, and the National Civil Defense are also working with the government of Minas Gerais to help fulfill local needs. I congratulate the sense of solidarity of the Brazilian people, who are sending food and clothing to the homeless,” wrote President Rousseff.
She said the federal government will declare a state of emergency to allow those affected to collect relief funds.