BRUMADINHO, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazilian firefighters on Sunday resumed searching for hundreds of missing people and called off an evacuation of nearby residents after a mining dam ruptured on Friday, triggering a deadly mudslide.
A remaining dam at a Vale SA iron ore mining complex in Brazil was no longer at risk of bursting, said Flavio Godinho, a spokesman for the Minas Gerais civil defense agency.
The dam burst at Vale’s Corrego do Feijao mine in southeastern Brazil unleashed a torrent of mud on Friday, burying the mining facilities and nearby homes in the town of Brumadinho.
Nearly 300 people are still missing, with the list of those unaccounted for being constantly updated, Godinho told reporters. Most of those lost are presumed dead, officials said.
The figure could rise as authorities reconcile its list of missing residents with the tally of Vale employees who are not accounted for, he said. The confirmed death toll rose to 37 by Sunday morning, according to the fire department.
The death toll exceeded a 2015 tailings dam collapse at an iron ore mine less than 100 km (60 miles) to the east, belonging to Samarco Mineracao SA, a Vale joint venture with BHP Group.
The Samarco dam break spilled five times the mining waste into a more remote region, killing 19 people, burying a small village and contaminating a major river in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster on record.
Fears about another dam burst in Brumadinho on Sunday triggered evacuation sirens in the town before dawn, but by afternoon officials said there was no risk and the evacuation was called off.
State fire department spokesman Pedro Aihara initially said 24,000 people would need to be evacuated, but later revised the number down to 3,000. In total, 24,000 people are affected in some way by the disaster, he said.
Renato Maia, a 44-year-old salesman whose best friend’s daughter remained missing, fled his home in panic early Sunday morning and they were stuck for hours at a police barricade on the outskirts of town, stewing at the situation.
“We’re all fed up with Vale … and this is really adding to the tension,” he said. “It was a huge tragedy and now we don’t know what might come next.”
The Brazilian government has ordered Vale to halt operations at the Corrego do Feijao mining complex. On Sunday, courts nearly doubled to 11 billion reais ($2.9 billion) the amount of Vale assets frozen in anticipation of damages and fines.
Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman apologized without taking responsibility in an television interview on Saturday.
“Apologies to society, apologies to you, apologies to the whole world for what has happened,” he said. “I don’t know who is responsible, but you can be sure we’ll do our part.”
The cause of the dam burst remained unclear. Recent inspections by a German auditor TUV SUD and Vale did not indicate any problems with the dam, the companies said.
Federal prosecutor Jose Adercio Sampaio told Reuters on Saturday that state and federal authorities have failed to apply more stringent regulation to the hundreds of tailings dams around the country.
Schvartsman said all of Vale’s tailings dams were checked after the 2015 disaster and periodic reviews are carried out.
Reporting by Gram Slattery; Writing by Jake Spring; Editing by Brad Haynes, Kirsten Donovan and Jeffrey Benkoe
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