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Environmental disaster in Brazil: mudslide hits the sea

20,000 Olympic swimming pools full of poisonous mud roll towards the sea. People die, habitats are destroyed. The government wants to sue.

Protest outside the general assembly of the mining company BHP Billiton in Perth, Australia. Photo: Reuters

MARIANAdpa / epd | Around three weeks after a dam breach in an iron ore mine in southeastern Brazil, around nine tons of dead fish were removed from the Doce River. The UOL portal reported on Thursday, citing the environmental authority, that sludge from the mine’s burst clarifier had reached the river in the states of Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo.

After the dam broke, the Brazilian government wants to demand at least 20 billion reais (5 billion euros) in damages from the mining consortium. Federal Attorney General Luís Inácio Adams plans to file a civil suit on Monday.

UN experts had previously called on the Brazilian government and the affected mining company, a joint venture of the Australian company BHP Billiton, to take immediate measures to protect the environment and people in the area in view of the danger posed by toxic substances. When the basin burst, 50 million tons of iron ore waste containing toxic heavy metals and chemicals leaked, it said in a statement.

"The extent of the environmental damage is equivalent to 20,000 Olympic swimming pools with toxic sludge," said UN expert John Knox. In a large area, the soil, rivers and water system have been contaminated. When the dam broke on November 5, 13 people were killed, and a further eleven are still missing. Local residents criticized these public figures as being far too low, assuming 40 deaths. The mudslide overran the village of Bento Rodrigues, which has around 600 inhabitants, 250 kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro.

The toxic sludge destroyed almost 1,000 hectares of forest. During the announcement of an initial damage assessment, Environment Minister Izabelle Teixeira announced on Wednesday that the "TV Brasil" channel would also tighten the environmental requirements for reservoirs. The environmental agency Ibama fined the equivalent of 60 million euros against the mining company Samarco, which is owned by the Australian company BHP Billiton and the Brazilian mining company Vale.

In addition, Samarco agreed to make more than 250 million euros available for cleanup work. According to a report in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, an analyst from Deutsche Bank in Australia estimated the cost of the cleanup work at over a billion US dollars (almost 950 million euros).