In southeastern Brazil, the collapse of two dams at an iron ore mine has eliminated the drinking water source for a quarter of a million people. The collapse also filled waterways with a dense orange sediment that could cause damage to the ecosystem for years.
So far, at least nine people have been confirmed to have been killed in the incident. Additionally, 19 people are still missing and more than 500 people have been displaced from their homes.
The amount of water that escaped from the dams was equivalent to over 25,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. It scattered water and mineral waste across more than 300 miles of land.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff compared the incident to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She said that the recent disaster was an “environmental catastrophe”.
The orange sediment is believed to contain chemicals that are used by the mine in order to reduce iron ore impurities. They could change the course of water streams as they harden, and they could also reduce oxygen levels within the water and reduce fertility for aquatic organisms in the area.
Representatives of the joined business venture that owns the mine, Samarco Mineração SA, have said that the sediment is non-toxic. However, biologists and environmental experts have disputed these statements. Local families have been told to dispose of any clothes that have come into contact with the sediment.
Farmlands that have been filled with the sediment might never be able to produce crops as effectively as they once did. Indeed, this environmental disaster could have major effects on Brazilian agriculture for years to come.
Researchers have said that they plan to conduct tests on both the water and the sediment in order to obtain a better idea of what the contents contained. After the tests, environmental scientists should have a better idea of the severity of the disaster.
One company that produces some of the compounds found in the sediment has stated that the materials are not biodegradable and they are extremely toxic to aquatic animals. Also, they can raise PH levels to points that are particularly dangerous.
The incident is the latest act of destruction against the Rio Doce, or “Sweet River”. The river is one of the primary routes that connects the Minas Gerais state with the Atlantic Ocean. The area was once filled with dense rainforests, and it was populated by indigenous tribes. The waterway has largely suffered because of the demand for minerals in the area.
Thanks to the most recent incident, the water from the river has changed to a reddish brown and dead fish have been spotted in its banks. Farmers who use the river as a water source have said that they are afraid to let their cattle drink.
Making matters worse is that the river flows into the ocean and it could soon have devastating effects on marine life. Endangered sea turtles are known to make nests near the mouth of the river. Once the waters flow to the area, the sea turtles could be in very serious danger.
For now, the full extent of the damage remains to be seen.