By Lise Alves, Senior Contributing Reporter
SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL – Rescuers are still digging through the mud around the Samarco plant in Minas Gerais, Brazil, trying to find the bodies of nineteen people missing a week after two dams burst in the municipality of Bento Rodrigues spilling millions of liters of toxic water into the region. Six bodies have been identified including that of a five-year-old girl and a seven-year-old boy.
On Thursday morning Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is scheduled to fly over the affected area and meet with officials from the states of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo. Although the accident was near the historic city of Mariana, Minas Gerais, tons of the contaminated water and mud have flowed into the Rio Doce (Sweet River) making its way into the state of Espirito Santo.
Rousseff announced the creation of a committee to manage the environmental and social crisis created by the accident. The committee will be formed by officials from both states as well as the Ministries of Environment, National Integration, and Mines and Energy. The committee will accompany actions to be taken by Samarco in relation to the people affected by the accident and monitor the environmental damage and water supply to the surrounding area.
Samarco is controlled by Brazilian mining giant, Vale and Anglo-Australian’s BHP. According to Minister of National Integration, Gilberto Occhi, President Rousseff spoke to the CEO of BHP, Andre Mackenzie and Vale’s president, Murilo Ferreira on Wednesday and requested reparation by the two companies to families affected by the incident and a solution to the environmental impact the contaminated water will have for years on a large area of the country.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira classified the accident as an ‘environmental catastrophe’ on Thursday and told journalists the government was analyzing possible penalties for the companies involved. According to Globo TV, IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Natural Resources), which is linked to the Ministry, will fine Samarco R$100 million for environmental damages. IBAMA officials say that with the break in the two dams fifty million cubic meters of water filled with residues from the iron ore processing plant spilled into the region’s ecosystem.
The two companies that control Samarco announced on Thursday that they will create a fund to help victims of the accident and recover the area affected by the contaminated water.
“As an immediate step, Vale and BHP Billiton pledge to support Samarco in creating an emergency fund for rebuilding works and to help the affected families and communities. It is our intention to work with the authorities to get this fund functioning as soon as practicable,” said the statement released by both companies.
According to the companies’ officials they also have health, safety, environment and geotechnical experts onsite to help Samarco implement actions which need to be taken.
Meanwhile the mud is now moving across the state of Espirito Santo, and is expected to reach the Atlantic Ocean by the weekend. Town residents along the Rio Doce have been warned not to drink or fish in the waters of the river. Officials warn that fishes in these waters are no longer safe for human consumption. Environmentalists say that if the toxic water reaches the Atlantic it may damage an extensive stretch of ocean life which could take dozens of years to recover.