Arsenic and mercury found in river days after Brazil dam burst

Handout picture released by the Espirito Santo State Press Office showing an aerial view of the Doce River--which was flooded with toxic lama after a dam owned by Brazilian Vale SA and Australian BHP Billiton Ltd burst early this month-- flowing into
Handout picture released by the Espirito Santo State Press Office showing an aerial view of the Doce River--which was flooded with toxic lama after a dam owned by Brazilian Vale SA and Australian BHP Billiton Ltd burst early this month-- flowing into the Atlantic Ocean in Regencia, Espirito Santo State, Brazil, on Nov 24, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) - Illegal levels of arsenic and mercury polluted the Rio Doce river in the days after a dam burst at an iron ore mine in early November in Brazil's worst-ever environmental disaster, according to tests by a state water agency.

The Institute for Water Management in Minas Gerais (IGAM), found arsenic levels more than ten times above the legal limit in one place along the Rio Doce after the dam burst on Nov 5, killing at least 13 people and flooding thick mud across two states. Mercury slightly above the permitted level was also found in one area.

In total, IGAM found unacceptable levels of arsenic on one or more days between Nov 7 and Nov 12 at seven places on the Rio Doce, which stretches over 800 km (500 miles) from the mineral-rich state of Minas Gerais to Espirito Santo on the Atlantic coast.

The report, dated Nov 17 but only released on IGAM's website on Tuesday after pressure from prosecutors, appears to contradict claims by the companies responsible for the mine.

Samarco, the mine operator, and its co-owners, BHP Billiton PLC and Vale SA, have repeatedly said the water and mineral waste unleashed by the dam burst are not toxic.

Samarco said in a statement on Thursday that their own tests showed the mine waste in the dam, known as tailings, did not pose any harm to humans.

On Wednesday, the United Nations human rights agency said"new evidence" showed the mud "contained high levels of toxic heavy metals and other chemicals," without specifying what the chemicals were or where the evidence came from.

Leonardo Castro Maia, a prosecutor in the city of Governador Valadares, which had its water supply cut off by the mud, told Reuters he had been pushing IGAM to publish its findings on its website. After a delay, he said the agency had complied. "There's been a real lack of communication between the bodies testing the water and the wider population. The distribution of information needs to be improved," Maia said.

Tommasi Laboratorio, a company hired by Espirito Santo's environmental agency to do tests on the water, said it had also found arsenic above legal levels but quantities had fallen in recent days.

"It's arsenic that wasn't there before the dam burst," said lab owner Bruno Tommasi. He said his tests had found no mercury or uranium and also urged caution about how to interpret the arsenic results. "Different types of arsenic cause varying levels of harm and our tests did not specify what type of arsenic was in the water," he said.

Biologists working along the river and coastline have been shocked by the impact of the burst dam.

The mud has killed thousands of fish, but BHP said they most likely choked to death on the sheer volume of sediment released by the dam, rather than the chemical composition of the sludge.