Six weeks after a pair of dams ruptured in a Brazilian iron ore mine, spewing millions of gallons of sludge and creating what the government called its worst environmental disaster to date, the industry giants that owned the mine are being asked to pay up. A federal judge ruled late on Friday that Brazilian companies BHP Billiton and Vale SA, which operate the joint venture Samarco, could be held accountable for the toxic spill that killed 16 people and displaced hundreds of others, Reuters reported.
But many ecologists fear the damage to Brazil’s wildlife has already been done. In interviews with the Los Angeles Times, a number of environmental experts expressed concerns that the deadly spill will devastate entire ecosystems, including a number of species that may not have been discovered yet. “The cost is irreparable. A lot of life forms are never coming back,” Carlos Machado, a Brazilian professor specializing in natural disasters, told the Times. “A lot of attention has been paid to those directly affected by the spill. But the risks are much larger than that, and they will last a long time,” he added.
As a result of the Nov. 5 collapse of the dams in the Southeastern tourist town of Mariana, contaminated orange mud has surged into the Rio Doce, a river that provides the local water supply and empties directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The environmental catastrophe has triggered outrage across the country, including a series of mud-slinging protests staged at Vale’s headquarters and calls for stronger government regulations on the mining industry.
Judge Marcelo Aguiar Machado froze BHP and Vale’s assets this week after concluding that they did not have the 20 billion reais—or $5 billion in U.S. currency—that the government is seeking in recovery compensation. Under the court’s decision, which the companies are allowed to appeal, they would be required to plot comprehensive cleanup efforts, assess the fish contamination in the Rio Doce, and risk hundreds of thousands of dollars in daily fines if they failed to make an initial deposit of 2 billion reais within a month. Both companies have already voluntarily pledged to create a nonprofit fund to help restore the river system.
“The immediate focus for Samarco has been securing the safety of the operations and supporting the humanitarian and environmental response. Plans must also be made for the recovery and rehabilitation of the affected environment,” the companies said in a statement. “We see this Fund as part of a positive contribution to the people of Brazil, who owe much to this river system.”
When the United Nations Human Rights Council weighed in last month, environmental correspondent John Knox called the Brazilian government and the mining companies’ actions “clearly insufficient” in the face of a disaster that exposed the ecosystem to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.
“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 kilometers,” Knox said in a statement. He warned that scientists now consider the Rio Doce dead, including its beach sanctuary for endangered turtles, and said the massive spill was the latest example of businesses failing to prevent human rights abuses.