On November 1, Brazil’s government filed a 7.2 billion dollar lawsuit against the mining company Samarco and its co-owners, Australia’s BHP Billiton and Vale, to clean up the damage caused by the mine catastrophe in state of Minas Gerais.
In a speech to the climate change summit in Paris on Monday, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff blamed the disaster on the “irresponsible action of the company”. “We are severely punishing those responsible for this tragedy” she said.
The dam, holding waste water from Samarco mine in south-eastern Brazil, burst on November 5, killing 16 people and injuring 45. The closest village to the dam, Bento Rodrigues, was completely destroyed. The city council had to evacuate about 600 people from the village to higher ground. The mine waste also reached another village called Paracatú de Baixo. There was no warning so residents had to run for their lives as they realised the dam had collapsed.
According to a pair of United Nations experts, the avalanche of mud unleashed by the dam failure contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. These findings contradicted repeated statements by the mining companies responsible for the dam that chemicals released by the accident were harmless. “The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometres,” the U.N. agency’s special rapporteur John Knox said in a statement.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said the toxic mud had devastated forests over a large area. The initial reports showed that an area of at least 9 square kilometres of natural vegetation was destroyed. The mud caused destruction along the path of the River Doce, which meets the Atlantic Ocean in the state of Espirito Santo, some 500 kilometres away from the area where the dam collapsed. Teixeira said a full study will be carried out by the Environmental Agency Ibama in 2016, once the rainy season is over. On November 17, Samarco agreed to pay the Brazilian government 260 million dollars in compensation for the disaster. The money will be used to cover initial clean-up and to help the victims and their families.
According to the Brazilian Committee on Dams, the dam breach near Mariana may be the most severe ever recorded in the country. The biggest dam breach recorded before this disaster was in Itabirito, Brazil, in 1986, when 7 people died.
On Wednesday, opposition lawyers filed a new petition to Congress for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.
The authors of the filing are prominent lawyers Helio Bicudo, a founding member of the president’s ruling Worker’s Party, and Miguel Feale, a former justice minister, who are backed by the country’s main opposition party, the PSDB. The new petition reinforces an earlier one by the lawyers to include accusations that the doctoring of government accounts continued into Rousseff’s current team. It also accused the president of signing spending decrees of 820 million reais (US $210 million) with approval from Congress, which is an impeachable violation of the country’s budget laws.
If the request is taken up by the speaker of the lower house, Eduardo Cunha, who himself is under growing pressure to resign due to corruption allegations, months-long impeachment proceedings would begin, which will effectively prolong a political crisis that has deepened the country’s economic slump.
The request is considered to be the most serious attempt so far to impeach the Brazilian president as it is based on a federal audit court ruling that her government manipulated its accounts in a bid to disguise the size of the deficit and to allow for more spending in the run-up to her narrow re-election last year.
The president’s government is scrambling to block impeachment proceedings in the lower house, where the president’s opponents would require two-thirds of the votes in order to approve an impeachment trial that would be held in the Senate. Furthermore, polls have shown that two in every three Brazilians want to see the president impeached. Her approval rate has fallen to single digits in recent polls, with many blaming her for not stopping a corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras and for mismanaging the country’s once-booming economy.
If Congress does impeach the president, then Vice President Michel Temer, who is the leader of the country’s largest party, the PMDB, would serve as president of the remainder of the term. However it currently remains unclear when, or even wether, the speaker will decide to take up the impeachment request, as Cunha is battling to remain in office following revelations of secret Swiss bank accounts in his name that link him to the massive bribery and political kickback scandal at Petrobras.