Briefing on Anglo American’s Minas Rio iron ore mine in Brazil

In April, 2017, London Mining Network hosted visitors from Brazil for the AGM of Anglo American plc. They spoke about the impacts of Anglo American’s Minas Rio iron ore project. Here is a briefing about that project and the problems that it has caused.

Briefing on Anglo American’s Minas Rio iron ore mine in Brazil

The Minas Rio project is an iron ore operation in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil. It is owned and operated by Anglo Ferrous, a subsidiary of London-listed mining transnational Anglo American plc.

It is on the borders of two important ecosystems, in an area of special scientific interest. It includes an open pit mine which is twelve kilometres long and produces 56 million tonnes of iron ore per year. The mine and waste disposal facilities take place within the boundaries of two municipalities – Conceição do Mato Dentro and Alvorada de Minas. The mine is powered by an electrical transmission line which runs for 90 kilometres through rare Atlantic forest, affecting ten municipalities.

Water use and contamination

A pipeline takes powdered ore, suspended in water, to an export port at Porto Acu on the coast. This pipeline is 525 kilometres long and passes through 32 municipalities, 25 in the state of Minas Gerais and 7 in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Land was expropriated to build this pipeline and construction has caused grave damage both to agricultural livelihoods and to local ecosystems: pastures have been cut in two by a deep fissure where the pipeline has been pushed through hilly country, and erosion has increased. Port construction has also involved expropriation of land, and has led to beach erosion and the flooding and pollution of local farmland by sea water.

Ammonia is added to the water in the pipeline to ensure that the powdered ore remains in suspension in the water and does not clog the pipe. When there are leaks from the pipeline, this ammonia adds to the pollutants that end up in local water courses.

Heavy use of fresh water to transport the powdered ore through the pipeline has reduced availability of this fresh water for other uses, particularly agriculture. Just to transport ore to port in Rio de Janeiro, the Minas-Rio mine uses enough water to supply 400,000 people a day with their basic needs. According to data contained in Anglo American’s Minas Rio licensing agreement, the mine uses 5,023 cubic metres of water per hour and its activity lowers the water table and destroys the recharge areas and aquifers, because it is in the iron ore layer that water accumulates. At least six communities are living on pumped water and some are without water for days at a time due to the drying up of springs.

The company says that improvement of its catchment of 2,500 cubic metres per hour from the Peixe River was given after strict studies from the Minas Gerais state authorities considering population growth and other projects in the area. It claims that Minas Rio’s water consumption does not affect anyone else’s water consumption in the area. The mine tracks water from the river and joint decision-making with various other users. Anglo American says the company has obtained all the necessary water use licences for the tailings dam and mine dewatering. It says the company is acting in accordance with the licences in that area. It says Minas Rio operates an efficient water resource management system with a full-time team of specialists which continues to improve water efficiency and access for neighbouring communities. Nonetheless, people living in those communities do not all share this view.

Waste disposal and the fear of catastrophic tailings dam failure

The project is in a sub-basin of the Rio Doce and its waters are fundamental for the recovery of the river basin after the rupture of the Samarco tailings (fine wastes) dam in November 2015, which killed 20 people and contaminated hundreds of kilometres of the Doce river valley and the sea around the river mouth.

Farming families close to the Minas Rio mine have also suffered from pollution of local water courses when a small dam built to retain mine waste burst, and waste surged into a river on which many people relied for clean water. This caused health problems as well as reducing water availability, and led to protests.

The main tailings pond at the Minas Rio Project, with a capacity of 370 million cubic metres, is seven times larger than the pond held back by the Samarco dam that broke in 2015. Three communities below the Minas Rio dam are in the area defined as a ‘self-rescue zone’ because there would not be enough time for competent authorities to intervene in case of an accident. People living below this dam fear the consequences of dam failure. But the company does not seem to acknowledge the danger faced by these communities: they are not considered to be living on land ‘directly affected’ by the mine, so they are not being offered compensation and the possibility of moving out of harm’s way.

Stage 3 of the mining expansion plan envisages heightening of the dam. The company says that the technical design and the construction of the tailings dam is very different from that of the Samarco dam. It is a ‘downstream’ construction as opposed to the ‘upstream’ construction at Samarco, meaning that, unlike at Samarco, heightening the dam does not involve constructing each extension over the compacted, but potentially unstable, wastes in the tailings pond.

The company also says that it has gone beyond the legal requirements in informing local communities about its expansion plans. It has purchased land and paid people on an agreed basis. But those living directly below the tailings dam say that it has never told them how many minutes they would have to escape in the event of a dam rupture. Anglo American’s risk management plan says that during the phase of operation and deactivation of the mine there are a lot of risks in the dam. It identifies fifteen situations characterised as high risk, so communities are worried, and even the company recognises that some families are in the high risk ‘self rescue zone’.

For context, Brazil’s mining regulator has been described as ‘chronically underfunded,’ with just 20 staff charged with ensuring all the country’s mines – including its 663 tailings dams – are kept up to standard. In this context, neither the words of the company nor the laws of the state are seen to be sufficient reassurance for those living in the immediate area surrounding Minas Rio.

The licensing system

The mining operations at Minas Rio are being developed in stages, and separate licences are sought for each stage. The mine’s critics say the company is subverting the licensing process by applying for permission for future expansion before the impacts of current operations are clear. For example, although the Operating License given in November 2014 provides for activities for 5 years, the license for Stage 2 was granted in October 2016. Only one year later, still within the 5 year period foreseen in the first licence, the licensing process for step 3 was started. The lowering of the water table was supposed to begin in the 5th year of mining, but the application to do so was filed in March 2014, even before the granting of the Operating License. In the early studies it was argued that there would be no need for new areas for sterile disposal. But the Stage 3 application says that there will be. They also accuse the company of recruiting employees of the environmental agency SISEMA who participated in the licensing process.

Jobs

The mining company says that the mine creates jobs for local people. But it also damages local agricultural livelihoods. In 2013, 172 sub-contracted Haitian workers were rescued from the mine by the Brazilian authorities after being discovered in conditions of near-slavery. Mining critics say that, with the advent of many mine workers to Conceicao do Mato Dentro, crime rates have increased and many local women have become lone mothers. Many local people remain in poverty.

Community divisions and intimidation of mining opponents

The Minas Rio project has caused division in local communities as those who hope to gain from the mine are set against those whose agricultural livelihoods are being undermined by it. Opponents of the mine say that the company and the state act so closely together that they have become almost indistinguishable. They call this ‘corporate capture’ and it means that they do not trust the state to defend the interests of local communities against the mining company.

Environmental hearings in the area have been held in the presence of large numbers of armed police, which opponents of the mine have found extremely intimidating. Peaceful community demonstrations are suppressed by a disproportionate police force and community leaders are sued by the company. The company often hires retired high-ranking police officers for corporate security, maintaining a permanent influence on the local security system. The Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office has expressed concern about militarization and the State Public Ministry has recommended moderating the use of the police force in peaceful demonstrations.

On 11 April 2017, a Brazilian court suspended a public hearing scheduled by Anglo American as the company attempted to push ahead with its application for the license needed for the third phase of mine expansion. The company had not made the correct legal announcement of the hearing and had failed to provide the environmental impact studies early enough for affected communities to study them and form an opinion on the plans. Were it not for the ruling, the company and the local authority would have proceeded with the mandatory hearing, knowing that those affected were not adequately informed about the issues.

After the suspension of the public hearing, the five people representing communities and social organizations who signed the injunction application that led to the judicial decision began to be physically threatened, including death threats, and their reputations attacked. Messages were shared in the social media networks of Conceição do Mato Dentro and Alvorada de Minas revealing the names of the signatories and reproducing the official statement by Anglo American, which stated that the suspension was causing problems for the licensing process and jeopardizing the operational continuity of Minas Rio. One signatory was attacked and his car destroyed upon his return to the community following meetings out of town. These five people, together with civil society organizations, filed a crime complaint and requested an investigation at the Federal and State Prosecutor’s Office. They have been included in the Federal Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

Community demands

Members of the affected communities who are critical of the Minas Rio project denounce the constant intimidation of communities, the criminalization of the movements and people who defend the communities, putting their own lives at risk. They demand that the company stop mine expansion until a full and transparent assessment of the additional risks posed to people and the environment can be made and shared publicly.

Information provided by REAJA (Rede de Articulacao e Justica dos Atingidos do Projeto Minas-Rio) and Churches and Mining Network.

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