On January 25, 2019, just after noon, a crack ran through the dam of one of Vale’s mines in Brumadinho, in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Within seconds, a tsunami of toxic sludge swept away everything in its path. The disaster claimed the lives of 270 people. Three more are missing underground. Four years later, the victims’ relatives experience a déjà vu and lament that no one has yet taken responsibility. The Brazilian court on Tuesday indicted 16 people and the two companies responsible, just as they did four years ago. They are again accused of intentional killing and environmental crimes. The difference is that the trial was then taken over by the Minas Gerais judiciary and is now in the hands of the federal judiciary, a leap that has despaired relatives, who accuse Vale of complicating the trial to delay the timing of the verdicts to delay.
That’s what Andresa Rodrigues, spokeswoman for the Association of Relatives and Victims (Avabrum), believes. She lost her only son, 26, who had just left the dining room on that fateful January day where most of the miners died. “We feel like the crime happened yesterday, we’re still trapped in this mud of blood and pain, and up to now there is no one responsible. Nobody was convicted, that paralyzes us,” he complained on the phone shortly before attending a symposium on the tragedy.
The monumental trial against those responsible at Vale and against the company itself and Tüv Süd, the German consulting firm that certified the waste pond’s alleged safety, dragged on slowly in the regional courts until the case turned in December 2022. When the tragedy struck, an appeals court sided with Vale’s President Fabio Schvartsman’s defense. Her lawyers argued that the mud plague affected some archaeological sites that were under the protection of the Brazilian state, so the case should go to federal courts, usually slower and safer. The Supreme Court agreed, and alarm went off among families. They were afraid that everything would end in nothing.
“It was clearly a maneuver to buy time because the death certificates are from Brumadinho. They cannot be from another place, they were murdered here,” says Rodrigues. The fear that everything would lead to the class being canceled and everything starting from the beginning was not confirmed in the end. Supreme Court President Rosa Weber urged prosecutors to hurry up with a new complaint, particularly to prevent those responsible from escaping payment for environmental crimes that have a four-year statute of limitations. In the end, this complaint came in extremis (virtually identical to the one filed four years ago) and the judiciary quickly accepted it. Schvartsman and Co. are charged again.
Vale’s defense, on the occasion, expressed some uneasiness about the speed of the judiciary: “Considering that the main objective was to obtain the complaint in order to avoid prescribing environmental crimes, it is not surprising that a complaint (…) of more than 24,000 pages was accepted in less than 24 hours,” criticized lawyer David Rechulski, representing the multinational, in a statement.
None of Vale’s executives are in jail, but the company claims it has paid out 37.2 billion reais (about $7.2 billion, more than 6.6 billion euros) since the accident through December last year, including compensation, court settlements, redress and environmental restoration measures. and that 13,500 people have signed compensation agreements. In addition, he points out that since 2019 he has dismantled 12 of the most dangerous landfills to increase safety. Nevertheless, 60% of the plan still has to be fulfilled.
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In recent years, the relatives have received various financial compensations. First, Vale paid all residents of Brumadinho a kind of basic income for a year. It was later agreed with the judiciary to pay up to 1.5 million reais ($290,000) for each victim. Some agreed quickly, others are fighting for a higher amount. Rodrigues says every decision is individual and their common struggle is to see those responsible behind bars, particularly Schvartsman, whose lack of sensitivity has deeply hurt family members.
In a parliamentary commission, he did not rise from his chair during the minute’s silence to commemorate the victims and immediately said Vale was “a Brazilian gem” who could not be convicted for the accident. Since then, the victims’ relatives have been calling the loved ones they lost in Brumadinho “Jewels”. The search operations were only suspended for a few months due to the pandemic and the search for the last three missing persons is still ongoing.
Vale’s former president came to the company and vowed that the Mariana tragedy would not happen again. In 2015, the rupture of another waste pond caused the deaths of 19 people in this other Minas Gerais city, adding to an unprecedented environmental disaster. So far, no one has been found to be responsible for this accident, hence the fear of the relatives that history will repeat itself in Brumadinho.
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