BRUMADINHO (Brazil) • Brazilian rescue workers yesterday searched for roughly 300 missing people after a tailings dam burst at an iron ore mine owned by Vale, amid faint hopes of finding many alive, three years after a similar disaster involving the miner.
Nine people have been found dead after the dam burst last Friday, while nearly 200 people have been rescued, according to firemen running the rescue effort in the town of Brumadinho.
"Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We're likely to just be rescuing bodies," Mr Romeu Zema, governor of the mining-intensive state of Minas Gerais where the disaster struck, told local press.
The death toll was expected to rise sharply, according to Mr Avimar de Melo Barcelos, mayor of the town of Brumadinho located near the mine. The cause of the rupture is not known.
Rescuers have mapped out four points where people could still be found alive, including a cafeteria buried in sludge around lunchtime, a police spokesman said.
Search dogs were being flown in from Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately, at this point, the chances of finding survivors are minimal. We're likely to just be rescuing bodies.
MR ROMEU ZEMA, governor of the mining-intensive state of Minas Gerais where the disaster struck, on the progress of the rescue effort.
All of those missing are Vale employees or contractors, the spokesman said.
Mr Renato Simao de Oliveiras, 32, was searching hospitals and with the police for his brother, who had worked for Vale for six years, and was despairing at the lack of information.
"I heard about it when I was at work. I called him several times but couldn't get a hold of him," he said. "We're lost, we don't know anything."
The state is still recovering from the collapse in November 2015 of a larger dam that killed 19 people in Brazil's worst environmental disaster. That dam, owned by the Samarco Mineracao joint venture between Vale and BHP Group, buried a village and poured toxic waste into a major river.
A state judge ordered Vale to freeze one billion reals (S$359 million) in its accounts, to be held against damage caused by the dam rupture.
President Jair Bolsonaro was set to visit Minas Gerais and fly over the disaster area yesterday, after dispatching three ministers there last Friday.
Vale chief executive Fabio Schvartsman said the dam that burst last Friday at the Feijao iron mine was being decommissioned and its capacity was about a fifth of the total waste spilled at Samarco.
He said equipment had shown the dam was stable on Jan 10 and it was too soon to say why it collapsed.
The Feijao mine is one of four in Vale's Paraopeba complex, which includes two processing plants and produced 26 million tonnes of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 per cent of Vale's total output, according to information on the company's website. Mr Schvartsman declined to say how output would be affected.
Operations at Samarco remain halted over new licensing, while the companies have worked to pay damages out of court, including an agreement that quashed a 20 billion reals civil lawsuit last year.
Federal prosecutors suspended but have still not closed an even larger lawsuit.
Iron ore prices are likely to rise in the wake of the disaster as there may be less supply on the market for the short term, said Mr Chris LaFemina, a Jefferies mining industry analyst.