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200 missing after dam in Brazil collapses

A community was inundated with reddish-brown mine waste

Friday 25 January, 2019
An aerial view shows flooding triggered by a collapsed dam near Brumadinho, Brazil, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
An aerial view shows flooding triggered by a collapsed dam near Brumadinho, Brazil, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Foto:Bruno Correia/Nitro via AP

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A dam in Brazil that held back mining waste collapsed Friday, inundating a nearby community in reddish-brown sludge and leaving an estimated 200 people missing, authorities and the mining company said.

Parts of the city of Brumadinho were evacuated, and firefighters rescued people by helicopter and ground vehicles. Local television channel TV Record showed a helicopter hovering inches off the ground as it pulled people covered in mud out of the waste.

Photos showed rooftops poking above an extensive field of the mud, which also cut off roads.

The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco, and an administrative office for Brazilian mining company Vale SA, where employees were present, which "indicated the possibility of victims," the company said in a statement.

There were no official reports of deaths, but the state fire department told The Associated Press that about 200 people were missing. The company said it did not have any further information.

President Jair Bolsonaro sent tweets and spoke about the accident, saying he lamented it and that he was sending the three cabinet ministers to the area.

"We will take all the possible steps to minimize the suffering of families and victims," Bolsonaro said in a speech, which he posted on Twitter.

Bolsonaro, who assumed power Jan. 1, planned to tour the area aby helicopter on Saturday. The far-right leader campaigned on promises to jumpstart Brazil's economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries.

Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais state, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.

Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation.

The latest spill "is a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies responsible for the tragedy with Samarco dam, in Mariana, also controlled by Vale," Greenpeace said in a statement.

"History repeats itself," tweeted Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate. "It's unacceptable that government and mining companies haven't learned anything."

The rivers of mining waste raised fears of widespread contamination.

According to Vale's website, the mine waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a UN report found that the waste from the 2015 disaster "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals."

Vale is Brazil's largest mining company. Two hours after the accident, its stock fell 10 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.

-AP

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