A toxic, chemical spill in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais is only getting worse. Two dams containing tons of industrial water waste from a local mine broke on Nov. 5th, which resulted in the immediate destruction of the town of Bento Rodrigues where the mine is situated. Two weeks later, the local disaster grew into what President Dilma Rousseff called “possibly the biggest environmental disaster to have impacted one of the major regions of our country,” which now threatens a portion of Brazil’s southeastern coast and the Atlantic Ocean.
The initial damage was already stark: an entire town of hundreds drowned in toxic sludge leaving a few dead, 19 unaccounted for, and hundreds of people homeless. Days later, the sludge, a mix of mud, arsenic, zinc, copper, mercury, and possibly other chemicals, made its way into the water supplies of 20 towns leaving nearly 300,000 people without any water to drink or bathe in. Brazilian authorities eventually called a state of emergency in more than 200 towns in the state. Meanwhile, the neighboring state of Espirito Santo has also begun to feel the effects of 60 million cubic meters of toxic waste (that’s enough to fill 187 oil tankers) that has slowly made its way into the ground and water supply.
As if that wasn’t dystopian enough, the sludge has already polluted more than 300 miles of the Rio Doce in Minas Gerais without any signs of slowing down. Much of the ecosystem in the polluted area has already been destroyed and the Aimores hydroelectric power plant that sits on the river has been shut down in anticipation of the sludge reaching the plant. Authorities, however, are more concerned with the polluted mud reaching the Atlantic Ocean via the river’s delta on the coast. The sludge could reach the ocean by this weekend.
The mine’s co-ownership companies Samarco, BHP Billiton, and Vale, have already been fined. Samarco alone has offered nearly a separate $300 million as preliminary cleanup costs while BHP and Vale have been fined $66 million. Estimates project they may pay up to at least a billion in fines, a number that doesn’t include damages from potential lawsuits.