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Many still missing in Brazil mine disaster

November 8, 2015

Teams have completed a third day of searching for survivors following a dam burst at a mine that has inundated towns and villages in southeastern Brazil. One person has been confirmed dead and some two dozen are missing.

Flood in Bento Rodrigues
Image: Xinhua

Searcher and rescue teams used small airplanes and a drone Saturday to scour the landscape searching for at least 19 people missing in the mine-rich state of Minas Gerais.

Villages have been devastated by a massive mudflow after two dams burst at a major Brazilian mine Friday, wreaking havoc more than 80 kilometers (50 miles) downstream and prompting officials to warn of a higher death toll.

Bras Azevedo, an official in the nearby city of Mariana, said authorities had to be cautious in sorting out exactly how many people were missing or dead.

"There are still people in isolated areas; they could be the ones we are looking for," he said.

Authorities have given contradictory tolls of the dead and missing in and around the village of Bento Rodrigues.

Reservoirs at the Samarco-owned mine, a joint venture of BHP Billiton of Australia and Vale of Brazil, failed unleashing a sea of mine waste that's continued a destructive advance as it flows downstream.

Residents had no warning

The disaster was triggered by a collapse of a levy at a mine reservoir holding 55 million cubic meters of mining waste, which spilled into an adjoining valley. That triggered the failure of another reservoir with 7 million cubic meters of liquid waste. The mass of sludge swept over Bento Rodrigues some two kilometers away.

No warning sirens were sounded, the mining company said. Instead, it said it called the civil defense authorities, some families and community leaders to warn them.

Civil defense officials said state authorities would test the toxicity of the rivers.

Samarco sought to downplay damage from contaminants, saying there were no chemical elements in the tailings dams that posed health risks when the accident occurred.

The company has suggested an earthquake in the vicinity of the mine may have caused the dams to burst but that it was too early to establish the exact cause.

The cleanup bill and potential environmental lawsuits could be more costly than the loss of output. The mining consortium's owners, BHP Billiton and Vale, already face iron ore prices at their lowest in a decade due to slumping demand from China.

jar/sms (AP, AFP, Reuters)