One year after the Samarco tragedy, BHP Billiton CEO Andrew Mackenzie paid his respects to the people affected by the dam failure and provided an overview of the remediation work.
Mr Mackenzie said “The Samarco dam failure was a terrible tragedy and our thoughts remain with those affected. One year on, our commitment to do the right thing for the people and the environment is unwavering.
“Our initial priority was to support Samarco in the humanitarian response so that it was conducted as effectively as possible. Now, the emphasis has shifted to the Renova Foundation (the Foundation) which will implement the long term programs to restore the environment and rebuild the communities.
“We believe the Foundation will bring together communities and global experts to identify and deliver the best solutions for the people of Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo as well as the Rio Doce basin. Over 90 per cent of the programs have begun and the activity on the ground is extensive. More than 3,000 people have been mobilised to rebuild infrastructure, provide community and social services and prepare for the wet season.
“The restart of Samarco is important for the local economy and the several thousand people employed. Restart has to make economic sense and have a practical set of approvals and processes in place from the authorities. We will only restart when it is safe to do so.
“The findings from the external investigation into the causes of the dam failure were published in August 2016 and shared with the industry. We are creating a new global tailings dam standard for our operations. It will draw on international leading practice for the design, construction, operations and maintenance of our significant dams and also increase the use of independent reviews.
“I am determined that the experience and knowledge gained will be used to improve the safety of tailings dams globally through greater use of the world’s best science and engineering. We will use this to lift the performance of our own operations.
“A lot has been done in Brazil over the year and there is much still to do. Some things will take years to fully resolve but our values will continue to guide our response.”
We are one year into a three year program to relocate the communities most severely affected by the dam failure. Immediately after the event, Samarco provided rented houses in nearby cities to those who had lost their homes. The reconstruction and relocation programs began soon after.
The Foundation is implementing a participatory process with residents from the three most severely affected communities - Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo, and Gesteira. Each community collectively developed criteria that were used to identify potential new sites for their villages and then voted to choose their preferred option. For example, 92 per cent of the families from Bento Rodrigues chose the “Lavoura” site and the new village is expected to be ready in March 2019. They are now in the urban planning phase.
On 30 October 2016, Barra Longa held a community ceremony to open the newly completed town square and river promenade, following clean-up and rebuild activities. Community members contributed to the design of the area.
In the immediate aftermath of the dam failure, the focus was to help those who had lost relatives, homes or their livelihoods. Over 8,000 financial assistance cards have been issued to provide immediate support. Advanced compensation payments were also made to those who lost relatives, their homes or their vehicles.
The Foundation has recently commenced a Compensation Program to ensure all community members who were directly impacted by the dam failure can register their details and have the opportunity to seek and receive fair and reasonable compensation for their losses in a timely manner. The program includes the administration of a mediation system, will involve a team of around 300 people in 20 communities and is expected to be completed around the middle of next year.
More than 530 community meetings have occurred since the dam failure on a range of topics. The Foundation is planning a further series of forums and workshops over the coming months as part of its ongoing consultative process and will take into account feedback following the signing of the Framework Agreement (the agreement for remediation and compensation entered into in March 2016 between Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton Brasil, and certain state governments and authorities). Implementation of the Agreement is predicated on extensive and effective community engagement. A social dialogue program has been established which includes physical communication posts, a freecall number, newsletters and social media. A community advisory committee will directly advise the Foundation Board. An ombudsman and grievance mechanism is also being established.
Remediation of the Rio Doce is expected to take three to five years of intensive work followed by several years of natural recovery and monitoring.
Water testing continues at 92 points along the Rio Doce, tributaries and sites at sea and the tests confirm concentration of heavy metals are comparable with readings taken by IBAMA in 2010, which indicate the tailings are non-toxic. The results are available to regulatory agencies, government and the public.
Two surveys of fish by Samarco using sonar have been conducted along reaches of the Rio Doce. Both identified the presence of fish in all areas studied, with experts concluding that it is likely that repopulation of Rio Doce fish stocks is being complemented by stocks in the tributaries. The results of these surveys have been supported by anecdotal evidence from local fisherman.
However, the volume of sediment in the water remains elevated in parts of the Rio Doce. Dry season turbidity should be reduced to 100 NTU (the Brazilian national standard) within three years. The latest monitoring undertaken during the dry season downstream of Governador Valadares (approximately 350 km from the river mouth) registered readings 30 NTU, consistent with historical standards. Further work is required upstream.
We expect a significant increase in turbidity in the Rio Doce during the wet season relative to the dry season, despite the work undertaken to stabilise the tailings. A significant program of work is underway to manage remediation risks during the wet season including limiting the potential for tailings material to be washed into the Rio Doce and preventing disruption to water supplies. Additional work has focused on upgrading the water treatment plants that draw water from the Rio Doce to enhance their capacity to deal with any increase in turbidity during the wet season. Works will continue to progress longer term solutions for the remediation of areas impacted by tailings material.
Cause findings and lessons shared
The findings of an investigation into the immediate cause of the dam failure were publicly released in Belo Horizonte on 29 August 2016. Vale, BHP Billiton Brasil and Samarco jointly commissioned Clearly Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton to undertake this work with a panel of four geotechnical specialists engaged by Cleary Gottlieb to advise on the technical causes.
The panel’s findings have been made public and shared with the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) to build deeper technical understanding in the industry and help prevent similar events. The findings have been shared with other resource companies so that the sector can improve safety and reduce the risk associated with tailings facilities.
A review of our significant dams confirmed they are stable, however as part of our determination to learn from this we have made further improvements. We have established a dam management function, bringing additional expertise to the Company and we are creating a global standard for our operations drawing on leading international science and engineering practice for the design, construction, operations and maintenance of our significant dams. We have also increased the use of independent reviews and changed the benchmark for the process for dam safety reviews in accordance with the most rigorous in the industry.
A governance review has led to our non-operated minerals joint ventures being centralised under the BHP Billiton President Minerals Americas and we are designing a new global structure to strengthen safety and risk management where we are not the operator.