Vale harasses locals in Brumadinho village to manage toxic waste after dam burst

Community struggles amid endless noise and lack of information, as only 4.5% of the toxic sludge has been removed

Pedro Stropasolas

By Pedro Stropasolas, from Brumadinho, Minas Gerais

Leia em português | Wednesday, August 21st, 2019

The only thing separating the Pires community and the Paraopeba River is the tracks of the cargo trains filled with iron ore. In the remote neighborhood 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from downtown Brumadinho, the modest houses sprinkled over the Atlantic Forest are almost invisible to those who don’t walk or drive up the narrow and bumpy dirt roads. And for the mining giant Vale and the city government, it’s almost like the residents of Pires were invisible as well.

“There’s nothing here, no sewage treatment, only unmade roads. I had to carry up the blocks to build this house in a horse carriage,” says Fátima de Jesus, who has lived in the community for the last 20 years.

After more than six months since a dam collapsed in Brumadinho, Brazil as a result of Vale’s criminal negligence, the 70 families in the Pires village have been living with no answers about what is going to happen with the waste products of Vale’s mining operations in the area. The community is 18 kilometers -- roughly 11 miles -- away from the area where a Vale dam collapsed killing 248 people in January.

The village is located near a part of the Paraopeba River where the toxic sludge poured from Vale’s broken dam. The community lost its river, which used to be a place locals could enjoy and have fun, as well as a source of livelihood. But now, Pires residents have become neighbors with the construction site of a river water treatment plant, a project Vale has promised to deliver to clean the waters of the Paraopeba.

As part of its waste management plan, the plant was designed to receive toxic sediments dredged from the river, dry them, and store them in huge “eco-bags” -- or geotextile tubes, as Vale calls them. The plant is under construction and is expected to start running by the end of August.

It is still unclear, however, what the miner will do with the massive bags of mud. There seem to be two options: to cover the contents in compact dirt for revegetation purposes or move it to an area to be defined.

The families who live in the Pires community down the land where the plant is being set up are concerned about how uncertain their future in the area seems right now.

“I don’t understand it. The community will not understand it. The problem is yet to begin. Soon it will all be dust. Then, the way they are doing that thing up there, which I don’t know how it’s going to work, [the impact] will be much greater than if two or three dams collapsed,” says Jorge Rocha, a local gardener who works for the city government.

Sitting by his side, his wife, Maria Aparecida da Rocha, looks back at when the construction work started, in mid-May, and recalls that the community staged a rally in front of the trucks hired by the mining giant to protest. The police were called to clear the way. “Vale is destroying us. It wants us to die,” she objects.

Always with her daughter Ticyane by her side, Maria Aparecida’s days are filled with loud noises coming from Vale’s operations: the construction of the water treatment plant and the miner’s train that runs through the state of Minas Gerais. “I wake up scared. It honks so much late at night that people can’t sleep.”

So far, Vale hasn't presented any documents to the community or the public defender’s office proving that it had conducted an impact assessment before starting to build the plant.

The plant is one of the 23 facilities the mining giant has promised to build to restore the Mina do Feijão area, which was completely ravaged after the dam collapsed, and reduce the volume of toxic sediments in the Paraopeba River.

But since the dam broke in January, Vale removed only 4.5 percent of the 12 million cubic meters – roughly 3.2 billion fluid gallons – of toxic sludge from the area, according to the company’s latest update in July. The mud was moved to the tragedy’s ground zero in the Mina do Feijão area.

The toxic sludge covered approximately 300 hectares – or 740 acres – of land, of which nearly half was native Atlantic Forest, according to the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama. The miner is now operating in the areas where authorities say there is no possibility to find the 22 bodies that are still buried in the mud.

In January, days after the Brumadinho dam burst, the Pires community had to be evacuated when Vale’s warning siren sounded announcing that another dam could break in the same area.

Disturbed by the construction work and facing the government’s ineptitude, the low-income Pires village remains with unmade roads, no street lights, and no sewage treatment. The community keeps waiting for social improvements and better urban structure, things that Vale has promised it would take care of in the past but has yet to come through.

“We’ve got nothing. All we have is this yard you’re seeing. We can’t even get close to the river anymore, because we could get diseases that have no cure,” Maria Aparecida laments.

Nilton Tavares, who has lived in Pires for six years, says life has become hard after the Paraopeba River was destroyed. “My wage was low, so catching two or three fish helped with that important protein intake,” he says. Amid an environment of hopelessness, most locals wish to be granted the right to move to a place far away from the negligence and the mud.

“If someone could buy [my property], I’d sell it even at a loss, but then, where would I go? Moving back to where I came from, where rents are absurd? That can work for people with money, moving from one town to another, but not for me,” Jorge says.

Impact versus remedy

A recent information bulletin published in July by the Minas Gerais state government showed that mining waste was found 318 kilometers (197 miles) away from the dam that burst in Brumadinho.

André Sperling, a Minas Gerais state prosecutor, says Vale has systematically failed to acknowledge the extent of the damage it caused, especially to communities that were not directly destroyed by the toxic sludge, but were impacted by the contamination of the Paraopeba River, which provided a source of livelihood and was a key aspect of their way of life.

Sperling says that Vale has not redress any of the damage it caused, except for a few emergency operations. Vale, he says, is yet to present a proposal to solve the issues of the people struggling along the Paraopeba, arguing that the company wants to be the only actor with the power to decide which communities were actually impacted by the dam collapse.

“It is not up to Vale to define who has been affected. It is not up to the criminal to say who their victim is,” the prosecutor says.

Carolina Morishita, a public defender for the state of Minas Gerais, underscores that the miner’s attempt to define the level of impact of each area is a way to try to belittle the trouble people have been put through.

“There are many types of impact. Mental health, physical health, housing, food security, the right to leisure, life as a community. All these different communities have been impacted in different ways,” she explains. Approximately 944,000 people have been affected by the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in 18 cities on the Paraopeba River, according to a survey by the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB).

Locals are not heard or informed

Vale’s waste management plan was delivered to the Minas Gerais state government on Feb. 8, twelve days after the dam broke. The miner claimed it would invest R$1.8 billion (US$450 million) by 2023 and hire approximately 1,300 workers in all operations.

An activist with the MAB, Eloá Magalhães is concerned that the Pires village may turn into a huge construction site, just like what happened near the dam that collapsed in Mariana in 2018, adding that the local residents were not informed about the beginning of the projects.

“Without informing the community, because no one knew about it, Vale bought this land and began earthworks, preparing the site to receive these mining waste eco-bags. These are the absurd promises Vale is making and the communities downhill will suffer the effects of groundwater and soil contamination, and the dust from the mud will also get here,” she says.

The company argues that authorities have approved and will supervise the construction of the management plant near the Pires village, claiming that it is monitoring the noise and defining its working hours with the community.


Every week, Vale representatives visit the Pires village with a new set of proposals that have been nothing but empty words and slide presentations.

Seven Vale employees took part in a recent meeting, on Jul. 18. Six were wearing a vest flaunting the mining giant’s four-letter name. But one sported a linen suit and tie, his hair filled with gel: the company's lawyer, who would answer to questions regarding the payment of compensation for damages caused by the dam burst.

Vale has been paying a minimum wage a month as emergency aid to the families from the Pires village since February, as part of an agreement signed between the miner and the Minas Gerais public defender’s office, which will be in effect until January 2020. The prosecutor André Sperling says that Vale has not made it clear, however, whether it will pay any kind of compensation after that deadline.

The families fear that they could lose this aid, as many of them no longer have jobs or lost their source of livelihood after the tragedy.

“The prosecutor’s office understands that if someone had their source of income and way of life affected by the disaster, they are entitled to payments until they are able to get their life back on track,” Sperling says.

A court case is pending regarding whether Vale will have to continue to pay emergency assistance to locals who have been affected by the dam break.

The meeting on Jul. 18 took place on a local farm, where around 40 residents spoke once again about the same old issues: sewage, light services, the bumpy road. The miner’s representatives used fancy language but failed to present effective solutions to solve their most pressing demands.

Vale currently makes emergency payments to 98,146 people. Nearly 47,000 of them are Brumadinho residents, while the others live up to 1 kilometer (around half a mile) from the banks of the Paraopeba River that have been hit by the toxic sludge down to the town of Pompéu, 205 kilometers (127 miles) from the disaster’s ground zero.

These nearly 100,000 residents are being paid a minimum wage a month -- R$998 or approximately US$250 -- and a food hamper each. The deal does not consider different income ranges, so wealthy families who live in the area are paid the same amount as those who are facing social vulnerabilities, like many Pires residents.

Land titling

The night of the meeting was mostly about a sports complex Vale plans to build in the Pires community, with a multi-purpose court, a party hall, and barbecue stations. No deadlines, only information about the area where the facilities could be built.

The public defender Carolina Morishita says there are concerns about whether Vale could use the plan as an argument to stop paying collective compensation to the families, including for resettling them.

“It’s as if giving the go-ahead for this project were the same as agreeing to stay in the community, which is not true,” she argues.

On Jul. 29, the Brumadinho city government released a statement informing that Vale itself will be in charge of formalizing land titles in the Pires community, a move André Sperling sees as a victory for the company’s legal strategy.

“We understand that everyone who lives in the Pires village should be resettled. Vale doesn’t want to do this process, it doesn’t want to grant people the right to live somewhere else. It’s clear that Vale wants to control the land titling process, but, in my opinion, this is the role of the State. So Vale is doing what should be the State’s responsibility,” the prosecutor says.

Brumadinho has nearly 100 informal urban settlements, many of which in similar conditions as the Pires village, a recent report by the newspaper Estado de Minas showed.

Half of the 60 million houses in Brazil’s urban areas don’t have land title, according to the Ministry of Regional Development.

Ticyane shows the contaminated river

After the meeting, Vale said it would publish a newsletter explaining whether the company would present the sports complex project in the Pires as a form of collective compensation, but the public defender’s office and the community have not been informed about it yet.

Vale only released a statement on its website saying that the investments it makes in Brumadinho communities “do not impact and are not related to the compensations that may eventually be paid individually by the company.”

About whether the miner would continue to assist the people impacted by the dam break once the emergency aid is no longer in effect, Vale told Brasil de Fato that “people who are interested in formalizing deals for compensation for damages may reach out to the Minas Gerais state public defender’s office in Brumadinho.”


Article, video, photos: Pedro Stropasolas | Editor: Rodrigo Chagas | Designer: Gabriela Lucena | Video editing: Marcelo Cruz and Pedro Stropasolas | Radio version (Portuguese): Katarine Flor | Coordinators: Daniel Giovanaz, Vivian Fernandes, and José Bruno Lima | Radio coordinator: Camila Salmazio | English version: Aline Scátola