Tunnel vision

Lax regulatory oversight and heavy rains affecting dams in Minas Gerais will turn mining operations into humanitarian disasters without further action.

Even with watertight regulatory oversight and the absolute best of technical expertise, dams can pose immense dangers not just to those who work in, on and under them but also to the periphery communities with which such infrastructure often has an economically symbiotic relationship. So-called ‘tailings dams – earth filled embankments used to store the by-products of mining operations are especially dangerous given that they can discharge huge quantities of toxic chemicals should things go wrong. You would have thought therefore, that funding the Agência Nacional de Mineração (“ANM“), the regulatory agency tasked with ensuring that the dams function as safely as possible, would be a top priority. Alas, not so in Brazil.  

A geography professor at the Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense explained recent developments, “Southeast Brazil and Minas Gerais have seen significant rainfall in recent weeks which can cause dams to burst. The threshold for that happening should be extremely high if building and regulatory frameworks are properly followed. Underfunding of the ANM is clearly a significant problem, but not the only one. The ANM is also highly politicised and does not hesitate to grant concessions if doing so aligns with the government’s broader aim of expanding mining activities across the country.

That is not to say that there isn’t pushback – this week for example a court in Pará state annulled all the concessions that the ANM had awarded at the Tucuruí dam on regulatory grounds. But such actions are rare.  

“Southeast Brazil and Minas Gerais have seen significant rainfall in recent weeks which can cause dams to burst. The threshold for that happening should be extremely high if building and regulatory frameworks are properly followed.

Geography professor at the Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense

Under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, the number of tailings dams without a certificate of stability has risen exponentially. Indeed, according to a study by the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, “chronic under-financing” has severely diminished the ability of the ANM to reduce risks associated with existing mining dams. There are three tailing mines in Minas Gerais with elevated risk of collapse according to the ANM – this number is set to rise further. Already, the state has seen an increasing number of incidents at tailings dams including Ouro Fino, Pau Branco – which overflowed and necessitated the evacuation of nearby communities – and Mar Azul. These were caused by heavy rains which have also wreaked havoc in Bahia in recent weeks.  

Politicians hungry for investment, especially as Brazil reels from the profound socio-economic effects of Covid, means that exacting safety and construction standards can be side-lined. A trade analyst at the Federation of Industries of Minas Gerais highlighted the challenge, “In 2021, the state registered a record level of investments, BRL 58 billion – much of this was driven by the mining industry. To put things in perspective, Minas Gerais attracted almost 50% of the total investment in mining in Brazil. The industry sees Minas Gerais as an extremely attractive place to invest.” Governments both state and federal, struggling with dire fiscal constraints, are keen not to let anything dampen such sentiment. 

“In 2021, Minas Gerais registered a record level of investments, BRL 58 billion – much of this was driven by the mining industry.

Trade analyst, Federation of Industries of Minas Gerais, Brazil

The professor underscored the danger of this thinking, “What gets lost amidst the investment buzz is the very real danger of repeating a disaster like Brumadinho, where many lives were lost. According to the state’s own environmental bodies, there are 31 tailings dams showing different levels of emergency. Six are believed to be in level two, when the collapse risk is high and residents in the nearby areas are advised to leave their residences. Authorities need not just to read these figures but to act on them.” 

Extreme weather events are unlikely to abate anytime soon. This will put tailings dams at Minas Gerais state at risk of collapse – it may be the rains rather than the reoriented fiscal priorities which have drained ANM of its coffers that finally force authorities to act.  

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