After Brazil dam disaster, Vale asks for forgiveness, gets fury

BRUMADINHO, Brazil/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Offers of penance from Vale SA for one of the deadliest mining disasters in decades fell on deaf ears in Brazil, where authorities and victims’ families seethed at a death toll from a burst dam likely to exceed 300 people.

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

Chief Financial Officer Luciano Siani said Vale was doing all it could, offering money to mourners, extra tax payments to local government, a special membrane to remove mud from the river and major investments to make its dams safer.

Yet residents in the devastated town of Brumadinho, which was hammered by a torrent of mining waste from the broken dam on Friday, were little moved by the entreaty, watching in shock and anger as one dead body after the next was pulled from the mud.

The collapse of the dam in the hilly, pastoral region caused 65 confirmed deaths so far, according to firefighters’ count on Monday night, with another 279 people lost and likely dead.

Coming on the heels of a deadly 2015 tailings dam collapse just a few towns over, at a mine half-owned by Vale, the disaster remained unforgivable in the eyes of many Brazilians.

“Vale is destroying Minas Gerais,” said Robinson Passos, 52, who lost a cousin and various friends in Brumadinho.

“There’s anger, sadness, everything,” he said, holding back tears as he surveyed the destruction in Corrego do Feijao, a small hamlet within Brumadinho that gave its name to the mine at the center of the disaster.

Outside a blue hilltop church, police and firefighters carried bodies pulled from the sea of thick mud, lifted out by helicopters and loaded into refrigerated trucks bound for the morgue.

Residents lower on the hillside pointed toward a spot where an inn had been destroyed with dozens of tourists and workers inside, now presumed dead.

Vale CFO Siani said the company would donate 100,000 reais ($26,600) to each family that had lost a loved one, adding that the company would continue paying mining royalties to Brumadinho despite a halt in operations there.

The company was building a membrane to stop the flow of mud now snaking down the Paraopeba River. A “bold” investment plan would also speed up the process of making dams more secure, he said.

Prosecutors and politicians have not been impressed.

On Monday, a presidential task force contemplated forcing out Vale’s management. Brazil’s top prosecutor said the company should be criminally prosecuted and executives held personally responsible.

Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque said the regulatory model for the mining industry was broken.

In a TV interview on Sunday, Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman seemed to agree. “We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn’t do it,” he said.

Reporting by Gram Slattery in Brumadinho and Marta Nogueira in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker

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