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Last week, former exec­u­tives of Vale and TÜV SÜD were charged with homicide and envi­ron­mental crimes for mis­conduct that led to the cat­a­strophic col­lapse of a dam above one of its mines. I Wiki­media Commons

On Jan. 21, former exec­u­tives of Brazilian mining company Vale SA and German cer­ti­fi­cation firm TUV SUD were charged with homicide and envi­ron­mental crimes for mis­conduct that led to the cat­a­strophic col­lapse of a dam above one of its mines. The charges are justly severe, but they will not absolve Vale from its duty to those affected by its crimes. 

The greed and dis­honesty of Vale SA destroyed a Brazilian town, and, one year later, the mining company plans to abandon it. 

Brazil’s Vale owes the res­i­dents of Bru­madinho more. It ought to invest in helping the town recover — an effort that will be long-term and not just financial.

On Jan. 21, Brazilian state pros­e­cutors charged former Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman and 15 other employees with homicide for the deaths of the 270 caused by a dam col­lapse on Jan. 25. 2019. A waste damn at the Corrego de Feijao iron ore mine six miles east of Bru­madinho caved in, sending 11 million cubic meters of toxic sludge careening into mining buildings, houses, and farms below. 

Trav­eling as fast as 50 miles per hour, the mud­slide was prac­ti­cally inescapable, and it killed at least 270 people. 

In a matter of seconds, the torrent trans­formed the site into a mass grave. The remains of 11 victims have not yet been recovered. 

Inves­ti­gators found that Vale exec­u­tives were aware of the dam’s weakness, but declined to make nec­essary repairs. German cer­ti­fi­ca­tions firm TUV SUD inspected the dam’s safety in 2018 and found erosion, wash-out, water build-up, and cracks.

“Every­thing sug­gests [the dam] won’t pass,” wrote a senior engi­neering inspector at TUV SUD, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

But TUV SUD was under pressure from Vale to certify the dam. If Dam 1 did not pass the safety inspection, Vale would have had to cease oper­a­tions at Corrego de Feijao, which at the time pro­duced more than $1 million worth of iron ore daily. 

Refusing to certify Vale’s dam would have jeop­ar­dized TUV SUD’s part­nership with the mining giant. The Brazilian gov­ernment does not closely supervise rela­tion­ships between mine owners and inspectors, and TUV SUD’s officers feared Vale would have retal­iated by can­celing business with TUV SUD had it given its oper­a­tions an unfa­vorable review. At the time, TUV SUD had con­tracts for safety audits at 30 other Vale dams. 

Despite finding it unsound, and therefore unsafe, TUV SUD signed off on Dam 1’s safety inspection on Sept. 26, 2018. 

If Vale was con­cerned with the safety of its oper­a­tions, it would have wanted TUV SUD to provide an honest assessment of its facil­ities. That Vale coerced TUV SUD into giving it a falsely favorable review shows that Vale was not inter­ested in pro­tecting its employees, but only in con­tinuing its lucrative enter­prise. 

On Jan. 9, 2019, Schvartsman, CFO Luciano Siani Pires, and other top officers received an email from an anonymous source warning that the company’s dams were “at their limit,” as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The source also wrote that Vale’s oper­a­tions were under-funded and under-staffed, and that its equipment was dete­ri­o­rating.

Instead of inves­ti­gating the con­di­tions of the company’s facil­ities, Schvartsman sought the identity of the sender, dis­missing him as a can­tan­kerous employee and saying he wanted to “look at [the email’s author] eye to eye.” 

Two weeks later, Dam 1 col­lapsed. 

Vale neglected the safety of those affected by its oper­a­tions. Its cor­ruption killed 270 people.

The company can never atone for its wrong­doing, but it must do every­thing in its power to help Bru­madinho heal from the tragedy.

Since the col­lapse, Vale has attempted to com­pensate res­i­dents of Bru­madinho finan­cially. It gave $25,000 to each victim’s family — $200,000 if they agreed to settle out of court. The company gave $13,000 to those residing near the mine and $4,000 to affected farmers and busi­nesses. 

Vale promised to pay the wages of Corrego de Feijao workers for three years and gave 100,000 men, women, and children in the area $250 a month — the equiv­alent of a full-time minimum wage — through December 2019.  

Vale’s payout is expected to total $107 million, but the pay­ments are not a thorough or long-term solution, and some resent them.

A Bru­madinho res­ident told the Wall Street Journal that the cash is “just hush money.” 

Still grieving, many in Bru­madinho have dif­fi­culty saving for a future that seems hopeless, and make pur­chases to soothe their sense of loss. 

Vale is right to try to com­pensate those affected by the col­lapse, but it should not believe money alone will atone. Bru­madinho res­i­dents’ anguish will long outlast the cash pay­ments. 

Vale’s decision to leave Bru­madinho will cost the area more than the cash pay­ments cover. Corrego de Feijao pro­vided 600 or more reliable jobs and con­tributed about one fifth of the town’s tax revenue. Brumadinho’s mayor fears the mine’s absence will decrease the town’s budget enough that he will need to cut health care, edu­cation, and other ser­vices.

Cash pay­ments don’t provide the ful­fillment of a job, and they don’t provide the foun­dation for a pros­perous economy. Vale should help res­i­dents of Bru­madinho become self-suf­fi­cient and find a new sense of purpose. The company ought to grant small-business loans and provide entre­preneur coaching and skills training to those affected by the tragedy and sponsor com­petent coun­selors to help them work through their grief.

Closing Corrego de Feijao makes good business sense for Vale: The mine con­tributed only 2% of the company’s total iron ore pro­duction, and would cost mil­lions of dollars to repair. But the res­i­dents of Bru­madinho will not bounce back as quickly. 

It would be dis­re­spectful for the company to resume oper­a­tions on the site.

 But because Vale is largely to blame for Dam 1’s col­lapse, the company is respon­sible for Brumadinho’s recovery. 

 

Madeleine Miller is a senior studying inter­na­tional business.