IN MEMORIAM SAMARCO TAILINGS DISASTER November 5, 2015, Minas Gerais Brazil

In this film one voice speaks for the loss of community, culture, beloved place caused by the preventable failure of the Samarco tailings facility in Minas Gerais , the most consequential in recorded history. Please say each name aloud inwardly as they scroll at the end of the film.

A Film By Hannes Dereere and Silke Huysmans For Victims of The Disaster

Crosses Mark the Gaves Of Bento Citizens swept to Death By The Mud Wave Photo Lucas De Goddy

“When the mud engulfed her house, Darcy Santos heard her grandson Thiago, seven, cry “help me, Jesus!” before he was suffocated.”Phillips & Davilson For Guardian March 1,2018

“The victims have been identified. All those who lost their lives. Can you imagine being overtaken by a wall of mud and waste ? An accident? No. It was caused by  technical flaws in implementation and maintenance consciously chosen  to reduce costs and increase dividends.Over many years, countless actions by all three companies at the highest levels, aware of the dangers in their choices,  avoided that reality  hoping to buy time with technically dubious measures”. Federal Prosecutor’s Report Introduction

Sources (1) telesureEnglish (2)UN Special Procedures, Human Rights (3))Samarco (4) G.Wilson Fernandes et. al(5)Expert Panel Report (6) Bowker wordpress  (7) Federal Prosecutor Charge p41

Source: (1) Eliana Santos Junqueira Creado Stefan Helmreich

Emauely, aged 5, was swept from her father’s arms as he ran ahead of the huge wall of tailings flow carrying both his young chidren. Emauely’s tiny broken body was found 40 km downstream.


A disaster of this scale requires a response of this scale” UN Rapporteur on first anniversaty of failure

In a statement to mark the first anniversary of the disaster at the Fundão tailing dam, the experts highlight unresolved issues including access to safe drinking water, river pollution, the uncertain fate of communities forced from their homes, and the insufficient response from the Government and companies concerned.

“On the eve of the first anniversary of the catastrophic collapse of the dam owned by Samarco, we urge the Brazilian Government and the companies involved to immediately address the numerous ongoing human rights impacts of this disaster.

The measures they are currently developing are simply insufficient to deal with the massive extent of the environmental and human costs of this collapse, which has been described as the worst socio-environmental disaster in the country’s history.

A year on, many of the six million people affected continue to suffer. We believe their human rights are not being addressed in areas including impacts on indigenous and traditional communities, health problems in riverside settlements, the risk of further contamination of waterways which have not yet recovered from the initial disaster, the slow pace of resettlement and legal redress for all displaced persons, and reports that human rights defenders are facing legal action.

We remind the Government and companies that a disaster on this scale – which released the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of tailings waste – requires a response on a similar scale.UN Rapporteur

Photo by Romerito Pontes licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Evaluating the response by miner and government to the Samarco failure against good Disaster Law, Délton Winter de Carvalho wrote” ..catastrophic accidents are often the result of a regulatory deficit, especially in environmental matters. The lesson from these anthropogenic disasters, including the Mariana Disaster, however, is that this historic and practiced human response to disaster ought to instead transition into advance disaster planning and governmental regulation with a goal of anticipating the necessary response and implementing the mechanisms prior to a time of emergency. Creating a risk management culture.”

“One example of how the Mariana Disaster illustrates the regulatory deficit in Brazil is the regulatory failure in assessing the mining company’s environmental license. According to a recent statement by the Public Prosecutor’s Office “only basic data regarding the enterprise [was] presented at the time of the licensing.”

“Between the years 2013 to 2015, there were documented findings of dam rupture risks. The company claimed to have adopted all technical measures to mitigate the known risks. Thus, there are crucial doubts that environmental agencies or the mining company entrepreneur gave due attention to the risks involved in the venture. In light of the documented dam rupture risks, the absence of an executive design for the project was striking and drew attention of government officials and the Public Prosecutor’s Office. This sort of regulatory loop hole constituted a failure of the legal framework to anticipate a potential disaster”

Délton Winter de Carvalho, Ore Tailings Dam Rupture Disaster in Mariana, Brazil 2015: What We Have to Learn from Anthropogenic Disasters , 59Nat. Resources J.281 (2019). Available at:hps://

Prefailure google Earth Image from Dave Petley’s site


The most deeply informed engineering assessment of causes of loss, was, as is most often the case, commissioned by the responsible companies and contractually limited to “proximate cause”, the final event and the preceding causal chain leading to that.

 As was true of Mt Polley, some of the finest geotechnical experts on tailings in the world were on the panel commissioned by Samarco, Vale & BHP, including Steve Vick and Norbert Morgenstern, both of whom for decades have been main builders of what constitutes “best practice”.

The confidentiality agreements preclude those engineers from commenting on or sharing other materials outside this mandate or from commenting on liability and fault. 

The panel begins with a delineation of these limitations.

“The Panel did not evaluate documents and information against legal standards, including but not limited to standards regarding liability, intent and the admissibility of evidence in court or other proceedings. The Panel did not seek documents and information related to fault or responsibility nor did they endeavor to assign fault or responsibility to any person or party, to evaluate whether or not the failure could have been foreseen or prevented, or to gauge environmental or other downstream effects or damages of the Fundão Dam failure.”

“The Panel assessed and interpreted historical documents and information with the benefit of knowledge learned from intervening events. Thus, the Panel’s findings and conclusions do not imply, and it should not be inferred, that the same findings and conclusions could have been drawn at the time of the events in question. The Panel did not address that question.

At times, the information available to the Panel was inconsistent, unclear or uncorroborated. The Panel did not seek to make credibility determinations in such cases. In evaluating the information available to it, the Panel used its best professional judgment, but recognizes that others could reach different conclusions or ascribe different weight to particular information”.

At the press conference releasing the “immediate cause of failure report”, Dr. Morgenstern awkwardly ducked the many astute press questions referring to rate of raise and other elements of deviation from best knowledge and best practice.  But within the limitations set contractually by the miners who hired them, Dr. Morgenstern said plenty that pushed against those limitations and made the CEO’s seated at a plain folding table underneath his large projected calm serene image squirm in their seats.

 The panel was clear that the “earthquake” miners had tried to hold out as primary cause had little if any effect as a failure trigger on an already severely compromised structure.   It takes great courage and commitment to engage a fact finding” they know will not allow them to look at or speak to all the facts. Better than putting in a second string of “experts” who may have allowed the miners more shade. Still, the omissions have a sting.  What they said also carried a sting for the owner operators.

 In the case of the Fundao, the proximate cause was identified as the inability to separate slimes and sands.   The expert panel noted that “The design was not adaptable to variation in the proportion of sands and slimes received. And most importantly, it depended on achieving adequate drainage of the sands and that over the life of the facility a number of “unplanned events” affected the deposition of slimes and allowed the conditions for failure to become established. “These included: (1) damage to the original Starter Dam that resulted in increased saturation; (2) deposition of slimes in areas where this was not intended; and (3) structural problems with a concrete conduit that caused the dam to be raised over the slimes”

It was originally planned to deposit sands behind a compacted earth fill Starter Dam, then raise it by the upstream method to increase progressively its capacity. These sands, in turn, would retain slimes deposited behind them such that the two materials would not intermingle. To preserve the free draining characteristics of the sands, a 200 m beach width was required to prevent water-borne slimes from being deposited near the dam crest where they would impede drainage. A high-capacity drainage system at the base of the Starter Dam would allow water to drain from the sands, reducing saturation. The first incident occurred in 2009 shortly after the Starter Dam was completed. Due to construction defects in the base drain, the dam was so badly damaged that the original concept could no longer be implemented. Instead, a revised design substituted a new drainage blanket at a higher elevation.

“The second incident associated with slimes and water management occurred over an extended period of time in 2011 and 2012 while the new design was being constructed. During operation, the 200 m beach width criterion was often not met, with water encroaching to as little as 60 m from the crest. This allowed slimes to settle out in areas where they were not intended to exist.

“Another incident occurred in late 2012 when a large concrete conduit beneath the dam’s left abutment, the Secondary Gallery, was found to be structurally deficient and unable to support further loading. This meant that the dam could not be raised over it until it had been abandoned and filled with concrete. In order to maintain operations in the interim, the alignment of the dam at the left abutment was set back from its former position. This placed the embankment directly over the previously-deposited slimes. With this, all of the necessary conditions for liquefaction triggering were in place. As dam raising continued, surface seepage began to appear on the left abutment setback at various elevations and times during 2013. The saturated mass of tailings sands was growing, and by August, 2014 the replacement blanket drain intended to control this saturation reached its maximum capacity. Meanwhile, the slimes beneath the embankment were responding to the increasing load being placed on them by the rising embankment. The manner in which they did so, and the consequent effect on the sands, is what ultimately caused the sands to liquefy.”

In considering the many complex aspects of the tailings depsoitions and the structures retaining them, the panel systematically worked back from the locus of failure.

70% to 80% of the sand tailings within 75 m of the dam crest are indicated to have been contractive, and 95% or more at greater distance up to 180 m. This demonstrates that the majority of hydraulically-discharged Fundão sand tailings satisfied the contractiveness requirement for liquefaction flowsliding

(source of al above quotes Fundão Tailings Dam Review Panel Report on the Immediate Causes of the Failure of the Fundão Dam, August 25, 2016 Executive Summary)

The “Immediate Causes” report omitted several Important factors forming the incubation of failure  Including : (1) that Vale’s unauthorized depositions of tailings and slimes  from its own contiguous Alegria Mine respresented 28% of all depositions (2) that there was no  capacity for the planned expansion not just in the TSF but anywhere on site (3) that Samarco over rode its own Resident Engineer ( and original designer) Pimenta de Avila, Mac G Roberston (as advisor) and its own Independent Tailings Review Board. (4) that at the time of failure an unauathorized reformatting  creating capacity in the closed  the Germano was taking place  ( most of those killed were involved in that project) (5) no mention of the slash of geotechnical budget and increased allocation of funds to expanded production volumes cite in Federal police report (6) no mention that after dam design PImenta de Avila was removed as Resident Engineer there was no competent geotechnical engineer in charge ( Federal Police Investigation report)

Each of these omitted factors, not , presumably, by choice of the expert panel members but by contract, allowed the incubating failure condition to advance and or contributed directly to critical stresses.