Brazil is facing one of the worst environmental disasters in its history after a dam failure unleashed huge amounts of mud mixed with toxic residue from an iron-ore mining operation. The mud avalanche has swept across hundreds of miles — polluting one of the country’s biggest rivers and spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Our Observer, a resident of the coastal village of Linhares, says that the devastating effects of the disaster on plants and animals are already evident.

The disaster began when two dams in the small town of Mariana in Minas Gerais state collapsed on November 5, releasing the toxic mud.

Samarco Mineração SA, a joint venture between global mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd, owns the dams in question and reportedly underestimated the risk of failure.

The dams held back close to 60 million litres of mud and tailings – a toxic mixture of earth and iron, aluminum and manganese from the mines. This all burst forth when the dams collapsed. An entire village was wiped from the map. At least twelve people were killed, and others are still missing. The mud flowed directly into the nearby Rio Doce. In the days that followed, the toxic current travelled close to 600 kilometres, hurtling through two states. It reached the Atlantic Ocean on the afternoon of November 22. The mud flow has left more than 500,000 people stranded with no access to clean water for their homes or their farms.

"The Dead River"

The mud has also wrecked havoc on the region’s plants and animals. Millions of fish have already died of asphyxiation. Experts also fear that the land covered with the orange-coloured, toxic mud will be infertile for several years. Locals have rechristened the Rio Doce the "Rio Morto", or the dead river.

Locals have rechristened the Rio Doce “the dead river”.

The mud also destroyed ecosystems along the coast. One social media user published photos of dead fish and birds on the beach in Linhares, the town located at the mouth of the river. The caption reads: "The sea is starting to die. Samarco has no idea of the evil that they have done to us."

Locals have found many dead and injured animals on the beach.
Many varieties of crustaceans and turtles also died when this polluted wave hit the ocean waters. The crisis occurred in the middle of the mating season for some, making scientists fear that entire species could be totally wiped out.

The main industries in Linhares are fishing and tourism. The disaster — which hit right at the beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere — has stalled both of these local industries for the time being.

"We're worred about consequences that this will have on tourism, which is our main source of revenue”

Regência is a small town in the Linhares district where about 80 families make their livelihood from fishing. Summer is usually a good time for these fishermen, who see the price of fish increase alongside the increase in summer tourism. But now, the fish are dying.

The hotels in town have been getting a lot of cancellations — because of both the risk of contamination and the visual impact of the mud.

What worries us the most is the consequences that this may have on tourism, which is the main source of revenue on the coast. Samarco [the company that owned the failed dams] didn’t worry about the repercussions that its mining operations in Minas Gerais could have on people who also depend on the river.

Fishermen in Linhares have had to stop working after the disaster.

"All of the information that we’ve been getting is contradictory"

Happily, we haven’t yet had a water cut-off, but we don’t really know what to do about this situation. All the information that we get about it is contradictory. On one hand, people tell us that the water is unsanitary to drink. On the other hand, they tell us that the contamination levels aren’t alarming. No one is explaining what security measures to take. We are far from reassured.

Swimming has been banned on the beaches of Linhares since November 22.

In the wake of this catastrophe, many locals have tried to rally. On Saturday afternoon, residents of Linhares held a protest. And on Monday, the town’s fishermen gathered in the district of Povoaçao. Some carried banners stating: "It’s not an accident, it’s a crime."

A protest in Povoacao, a district of Linhares, on November 24.

According to the Minister for the Environment, Izabella Teixeira, it will take Brazil 30 years to recover from this disaster. Samarco has agreed to pay damages up to 253 million euros. The company has also been fined 90 million euros, payable to the Brazilian Environmental Agency in the state of Minas Gerais. But Samarco poses a continued threat. Last week, the company confirmed that two other dams on the same site are in danger of collapsing.