RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Brazilian state of Minas Gerais on Monday banned the type of dam that collapsed a month ago and caused the death of at least 179 people. The bill was signed by Governor Romeu Zema even as recovery teams kept looking for 131 people still missing from the January 25 collapse in the city of Brumadinho.
The legislation gives companies operating in the mineral-rich state 90 days to present plans to substitute the dams within three years. A similar bill was introduced in 2016 following the rupture of another upstream tailings dam that killed 19 people. That proposal, by state legislator Joao Vitor Xavier, didn't pass. Xavier said that this time the staggering death toll in Brumadinho woke lawmakers up to the dangers of mining dams.
"The facts are indisputable: Over 300 people died because these kinds of dams are unsafe," Xavier told The Associated Press. "Those who chose to ignore this reality can't deny it anymore."
The collapse of the dam, owned and operated by Vale SA, sent a torrent of mud to Brumadinho and beyond, burying a cafeteria where Vale employees were eating, an inn and several other structures. Last week, firefighters said they had discovered a buried warehouse where they expect to find more bodies. Hope of finding missing people alive has all but vanished, and even recovering all the bodies is beginning to look hopeless.
"Due to the quantity of mining waste, the size of the area affected by the tragedy and the fact that the bodies are very spread out, it makes some recoveries impossible," said Pedro Aihara, a fire department spokesman. Sueli de Oliveira Costa, one of hundreds of family members desperate for closure, goes each day to the rescue center in hopes of finding that her husband's body has been recovered.
"I feel really disrespected," Costa said. "What I really want is just to have him back, but since I can't have that, I think at the very least they need to give him to me, at least, what is left of him, so I can give him a dignified funeral. He deserves that."
"He must have been one of the first to die, poor thing," she added, explaining that he worked as a caretaker on a ranch very near the dam's base. The disaster called attention to the dangers of mining dams, which hold back massive quantities of mud created from mining iron ore. There are 50 such dams in Minas Gerais, and many sit above populated areas. Since the Brumadinho disaster, 1,200 people who live in rural zones below iron ore dams have been evacuated.
"Everyone's living in great fear now," said Carolina de Moura, a Brumadinho local and activist with the "People Affected by Vale," movement. "Lots of communities are mobilizing and mounting pressure to hold this company accountable."
Authorities have made 13 arrests in connection with the disaster. Two contract consultants and three Vale employees were arrested days after the tragedy and have since been released. On February 15, authorities arrested eight Vale employees, who remain in prison.
The company said it would donate $27,000 to the families of those who died or are presumed dead, and as of Monday had completed 264 such payments. Vale also announced it would be giving a monthly payment of $268 per adult in the region affected for the next year, as well as $134 per teenager and $67 per child. In a full-page advertisement in Brazilian daily O Estado de S. Paulo, Vale called the payments "an unprecedented move" that showed its "respect for the affected families."
But many have criticized Vale's handling of the situation. During a public hearing in the lower house of Congress, Vale's CEO said that the company was "a Brazilian jewel that can't be convicted for an accident at one of its dams, no matter how large the tragedy is."
"If you've got the CEO going to Congress and calling the company a 'Brazilian jewel' after committing this crime, do you think they've learned their lesson? Of course not," said Carolina de Moura, the activist from Brumadinho.