BRUMADINHO, BRAZIL >> The death toll from the collapse of a dam holding back mine waste in southeastern Brazil rose to 34 today as searchers flying in helicopters and rescuers laboring in deep mud uncovered more bodies. Authorities estimated at least 200 people were still missing and expected the death toll to rise during a search made more challenging by intermittent rains.
Romeu Zema, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais, warned that those responsible “would be punished.”
Daily Folha de S.Paulo reported Saturday that the dam’s mining complex, owned and operated by Brazilian mining company Vale, was issued an expedited license to expand in December due to “decreased risk.”
Preservation groups in the area say the approval was unlawful.
In addition to the 34 bodies recovered as of Saturday afternoon, 23 people were hospitalized, said authorities with the Minas Gerais fire department. There had been some signs of hope earlier Saturday when authorities found 43 more people alive. Company officials also had said that 100 workers were accounted for.
Firefighters distributed to news outlets lists of people who had been rescued or accounted for. But there were still scores of families in the city desperately awaiting word on their loved ones.
For many, hope was fading to anguish.
“I don’t think he is alive,” said Joao Bosco, speaking of his cousin, Jorge Luis Ferreira, who worked for Vale. “Right now I can only hope for a miracle of God.”
Vale workers were eating lunch Friday afternoon when the dam collapsed, unleashing a sea of reddish-brown mud that knocked over and buried several structures of the company and surrounding areas. The level of devastation quickly led President Jair Bolsonaro and other officials to describe it as a “tragedy.”
“It’s distressing, maddening,” said Vanilza Sueli Oliveira, who was awaiting news of her nephew. “Time is passing. It’s been 24 hours already. Time is passing. I just don’t want to think that he is under the mud.”
The rivers of mining waste raised fears of widespread contamination.
According to Vale’s website, the waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a U.N. report found that the waste from a similar disaster in 2015 “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”
Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said he did not know what caused the collapse. About 300 employees were working when it happened.
“The principal victims were our own workers,” Schvartsman told a news conference Friday evening, adding that the restaurant where many ate “was buried by the mud at lunchtime.”
After the dam collapsed Friday afternoon, parts of Brumadinho were evacuated, and firefighters rescued people by helicopter and ground vehicles. Several helicopters flew over the area on Saturday while firefighters carefully traversed heavily inundated areas looking for survivors.
Rooftops poked above an extensive field of the mud, which also cut off roads. The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and a Vale administrative office, where employees were present.
On Friday, Minas Gerais state court blocked $260 million from Vale for state emergency services and is requiring the company to present a report about how they will help victims. On Saturday, the state’s justice ministry ordered an additional $1.3 billion blocked.
Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais state, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.
Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Schvartsman said what happened Friday was “a human tragedy much larger than the tragedy of Mariana, but probably the environmental damage will be less.”
“Vale destroyed Mariana and now they’ve destroyed Brumadinho,” said Sueli de Oliveira Costa, who hadn’t heard from her husband since Friday. “I need answers. I am desperate.”
Bolsonaro, who assumed office Jan. 1, did a flyover of the area on Saturday.
On Twitter, he said his government would do everything it could to “prevent more tragedies” like Mariana and now Brumadinho.
The far-right leader campaigned on promises to jump-start Brazil’s economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries.
Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation, and many promised to fight any further deregulation by Bolsonaro in Latin America’s largest nation.
The latest spill “is a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies responsible for the tragedy with Samarco dam, in Mariana, also controlled by Vale,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
“History repeats itself,” tweeted Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate. “It’s unacceptable that government and mining companies haven’t learned anything.”