In late January, disaster struck São Paulo, Brazil when an iron mining dam, owned by a company called Vale S.A., collapsed. The collapse filled the area around the southeastern town of Brumadinho with water, mud, and toxic mining debris, killing at least 60 people and leaving hundreds more missing. According to reports from the area, emergency sirens were broken and many people only heard screams as the only warning of the collapse.
Workers and those living in the area around the mine were not the only ones affected. The Paraopeba River, regularly used in the daily lives of the indigenous Pataxo Ha-ha-hae people, was saturated with mud and debris. The river is no longer usable for bathing, washing clothes, or even as a source of fresh drinking water anymore. Fish and other animals reliant on the river have been dying off as the mud and mined minerals make the water too toxic for life. While no tribe members make up the death toll, there is a fear that the collapse will result in the death of their ancient cultural practices, as many have been forced to leave their homes near the Paraopeba.
This situation was, avoidable. According to surveyors of the dam, it was a little more than a wall holding back a man-made lake of mining waste. These dams, called upstream tailings dams, can be the ultimate symbol of poor engineering as they rely on mud to remain stable and run the near constant risk of collapse if not properly monitored. This lackadaisical approach to dam creation is extremely common across the country, as the Brazilian government reports nearly 90 other dams similar to the one owned by Vale S.A, and nearly all of these built in Brazil are flagged as being at risk for collapse.
Including the inspection of other at risk dams, the Brazilian government has taken direct action against Vale itself. Thousands of dollars have been taken from the company and frozen for later use in relief efforts for the people affected. Police arrested the inspector of the dam that had claimed it was stable and not at risk for a disastrous collapse. Problems like these will only continue to take innocent lives unless risky engineering practices are stopped from the beginning.
Dam collapses are not a new issue for Brazil either, which had a similar situation in 2015 occur, nor are they new across the rest of the world. News of these failures by engineering firms and corporations needs to be placed in the hands of engineers, and future engineers, in order to prevent large scale catastrophes. While political intervention is important to prevent the greed of companies to be placed above human life, ultimately the designers of these projects need to be able to create safe technologies that function and don’t cause unnecessary death. Meanwhile, relief efforts will continue in São Paulo with no reasonable end in sight as houses remain buried and the river remains contaminated.