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Existing mining and environmental regulations, if they had been implemented, could have prevented this disaster, which caused at least 84 dead and 256 missing. We discuss the Vale dam collapse in Brazil with Greenpeace organizer Fabiana Alves

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

The death toll from last week’s mining dam collapse in Brazil has risen to at least 84, with another 276 people missing, at last count that I’ve read. In terms of people missing and killed, this is Brazil’s deadliest mining disaster on record, and the Vale mining company, which operated the dam, has said it will decommission ten of its dams in Brazil, which represents 10 percent of the company’s output. This is a security precaution, as they put it. But with this new government waiting to slash environmental regulation and open more land to development and mining, we’ll see what that really means. But what does this mining dam collapse mean in terms of its overall environmental impact, and what responsibility does the Brazilian government bear in it all?

Joining me to discuss this is Fabiana Alves. She is climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Brazil. And Fabiana, thanks for joining us today here at Real News. Good to have you with us.

FABIANA ALVES: Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: So this is–I mean, when you see the pictures of what happened in Brumadinho, they’re horrendous and they’re frightening to look at. But I’m curious, in the larger perspective outside that town and what’s happened since, what we know. What will be the health impact of this collapse on the people, on the animal life, on agriculture, on the environment? What are some of the things you’re watching and worrying about?

FABIANA ALVES: Yes. Three years ago we had the same type of disaster in Brazil, very close to Brumadinho, the place that this disaster happened now, in the same state, the state of Minas Gerais. And the disaster was done by the same company, which is Vale.

MARC STEINER: Val-ay, not Vale. Yeah.

FABIANA ALVES: Yes. This company killed 21 people the last time, and made a whole city completely disappear. And another one had to be evacuated and reconstructed. None was done. None of the cities that needed to be reconstructed was reconstructed. The mud is a toxic mud. It’s already there in the place of the [ocean] disaster. And they had not paid what the government was charging for all the mess they have done in the past.

So what I can say right now is that the trust in the company is very low, because they have not done what they had to do in the past. So I have to see what they’re going to do now. About the environmental impacts, they are huge. The mud is toxic. So there’s a lot of iron in the mud, and manganese. These two components are very toxic. And the last time Greenpeace coordinated six different studies, independent studies, to see how was the impact, the environmental impact and the social impact, because both things, we have to remember, are linked. And what we saw there is that the level of toxins in the mud was very high. So that means that the mud is affecting people that are in contact with it. Last time they killed a whole river, and that’s what they’re doing–a whole river. We had a huge river, it’s called the Doce River. They have killed the entire river and everything there was around the river. They have not done the reforestation that they needed to do.

And let’s see how it’s going to be now, because the mud is going to one of our biggest rivers in Brazil, which is Sao Francisco. And we hope that the mud stops at the hydroelectric that we have in the middle of the way.

MARC STEINER: I’ve also read that the way this toxic mud is moving, that it’s, as you just said, affecting Brazil’s largest river, going into Indigenous territory, as well. And people already have seen thousands of dead fish floating in the water. So I mean, what do you know, what do we know about the environmental impact so far? And what the effect could be in a larger area if, in fact, you could?

FABIANA ALVES: Well, what we know from the past, from past experiences, is it’s going to everything that is around. It can contaminate the water, and also the water on the underground. So if someone is taking water from deep underground, this water may be contaminated, too. It’s necessary to check the water to see how the water is. And it needs to be done all the time. Not just once, but once in a month, or even more times, to see how these things are happening. Same thing for health impacts. From now on we need to see how people that are close to this toxic mud, if they are presenting anything that could cause that could be a problem in their health. So everything, all these, need to be close seen by the enterprise. The enterprise needs to be there to do that.

MARC STEINER: So, the president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, said on Twitter that he and his administration would do everything in their power to prevent more tragedies like this. But he’s also carrying out an agenda of environmental deregulation. And if–and when you look back at the history of the last 10 years, even with an administration in Brazil that represented the people in a greater depth than Bolsonaro’s does, an administration that came from the left, you still could not regulate this industry, you couldn’t stop it. So what’s your response? What should be the response, and what’s your response to Bolsonaro in all of this?

FABIANA ALVES: Well, Bolsonaro, he used to be in the Congress very close to ruralistas. Those are a part of the Congress that tries to put laws that makes environmental license more flexible, so easy to–infrastructure, structures can can be easily done. They want to pass laws on that. Bolsonaro is linked to people in the government that have already said that the environmental people are always exaggerating things. They do not–they have declared that they, they want the country all for development, and that environment has nothing to do with that. So he has a completely wrong way to see what development and [economic] means. For example, if you see everything that happened, people died, rivers died, and all the social impact. Those impacts caused economic impacts, too, that they are not doing the right accountability on that. So we need to see how he’s going to do the next steps for that.

MARC STEINER: So it was interesting, I was reading an article that showed these people scrawling on the walls in the town that–you said Vale is how you say it? Vale?


MARC STEINER: “Vale is a recidivist murder,” “Profit is what Vale is all about,” “Vale can kill you.” So there were all these signs that were across in that town after this disaster took place. So I’m wondering what kinds of environmental policy would actually have to be put in place to stop these kinds of disasters, because more could be coming.

FABIANA ALVES: Well, environmental licenses are very important, because that’s the moment that you say if it’s OK or not OK to do a project, an infrastructure project. So it’s very important that Brazil has very strong legislation on that, and that all states follow it, so we don’t have a competition between states to see who gets more infrastructure and who gives more to the companies to have them in their, in their states. This is important, but also–it’s also important is physicalization. In Brazil we have we have no physicalizations of all dams that we have in Brazil. We have more than 40 per cent of the dams, they are not–we don’t know where they are. There are no transparency. Yes, there are no transparency of where they are and what are the risks they are causing. So we need the government to see that. Another thing is the physicalization, it needs to be done regularly, and it needs to be independent. We cannot accept anymore that enterprises hire the people that are doing the physicalization in their dams. So these type of things can’t happen anymore.

MARC STEINER: Well, Fabiana Alves, I appreciate your taking the time to talk with us here at Real News today. I know you’re extremely busy, and going out from Sao Paulo to Brumadinho yourself to see what’s going on. Look forward to talking to you again. Stay safe. I hope that people will be safe in that community. Thank you for joining us.


MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Take care.

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Host, The Marc Steiner Show
Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.