BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian rescue workers on Saturday searched for roughly 300 missing people after a tailings dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale SA (VALE3.SA), amid faint hopes of finding many alive, three years after a similar disaster involving the miner.
Nine people have been found dead after the dam burst on Friday, while nearly 200 people have been rescued, according to firemen running the rescue effort in the town of Brumadinho.
“Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We’re likely to just be rescuing bodies,” Romeu Zema, governor of the mining-intensive state of Minas Gerais where the disaster struck, told local press.
The death toll was expected to rise sharply, according to Avimar de Melo Barcelos, mayor of the town of Brumadinho located near the mine. The cause of the rupture is not known.
Rescuers have mapped out four points where people still could be found alive, including a cafeteria buried in sludge around lunchtime, a police spokesman said. Search dogs were being flown in from Rio de Janeiro.
All of those missing are Vale employees or contractors, the spokesman said.
Renato Simão de Oliveiras was searching hospitals and with police for his brother, who had worked for Vale for 6 years, and was despairing at the lack of information.
“I heard about it when I was at work. I called him several times but couldn’t get a hold of him,” the 32 year old said.
“We’re lost, we don’t know anything.”
The state is still recovering from the collapse in November 2015 of a larger dam that killed 19 people in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. That dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao SA joint venture between Vale and BHP Group Ltd (BHP.AX), buried a village and poured toxic waste into a major river.
A state judge ordered Vale to freeze 1 billion reais ($265 million) in its accounts, to be held against damages caused by the dam rupture.
President Jair Bolsonaro was set to visit Minas Gerais and fly over the disaster area on Saturday morning, after dispatching three ministers there on Friday.
Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said the dam that burst on Friday at the Feijao iron mine was being decommissioned and its capacity was about a fifth of the total waste spilled at Samarco. He said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan. 10 and it was too soon to say why it collapsed.
The Feijao mine is one of four in Vale’s Paraoeba complex, which includes two processing plants and produced 26 million tonnes of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 percent of Vale’s total output, according to information on the company’s website.
Schvartsman declined to comment on how output would be affected.
Operations at Samarco remain halted over new licensing, while the companies have worked to pay damages out of court, including an agreement that quashed a 20 billion reais ($5.31 billion) civil lawsuit last year. Federal prosecutors suspended but have still not closed an even larger lawsuit.
Reporting by Gram SlatteryAdditional reporting by Marta NogueiraWriting by Brad Haynes and Jake Spring, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, William Maclean