The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970 and rules began to pour out of the agency that would be protective of both our air and our water. Ever since, those rules have been chipped away, bits of those protective rules broken, erased by our Congress, under influence by lobbyists from mining, oil, other industries and agriculture.
Our country is not alone. The mining industry is a dirty business and what works for them is to continue business as usual, paying any fines that come is cheaper. It is their business model. We know that from the legacy waste the companies have left in our Tar Creek Superfund Site. And the unending flow of it down Tar Creek ending up in Grand Lake all these years.
Last Friday a dam in Brazil broke loose in a tsunami of red mud, releasing iron mining waste in such force 200 of their own workers were the first casualties as they were eating their lunch in a cafeteria near the dam. The Vale dam collapse announcement caused Vale shares to "plummet" on the New York Stock Exchange that day.
I was in the backseat of a small plane with photographer Vaughn Wascovich years ago. He was taking photos of chat piles, but as the plane turned the landscape changed beneath us. There below were fields of green and trees lining Tar Creek. I knew it was Tar Creek because of the ribbon of bright red bordered by the trees. We both took photos of that moment. But it was his that got the attention of the TIME reporter who saw it and immediately knew our story should be told.
Now imagine what Brazil's red tsunami waste is looking like, wide, powerfully wiping away structures as it passed. This occurred in the state of Minas Gerais, barely missing the city of Brumadinho. The President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro flew over it and exclaimed it was “difficult to not be emotional."
Someone was definitely at fault. There ought to be consequences. Minas Gerais state courts quickly froze billions of Vale assets. Vale had been involved in the collapse of another dam in 2015 which 250,000 people were left without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. Brazil's environmental protection agency fined Vale $90 million then, this time $2.1 billion has been levied for this disaster.
The Brazil office of environmentalist group Greenpeace said the dam break was “a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies.” Such incidents “are not accidents but environmental crimes that must be investigated, punished and repaired,” it added.
Vale had requested a new license to expand the capacity of the dam so it would be allowed to hold more, but the National Civil Society Forum for Hydrographic Basins, a network of civil society groups urged authorities not to grant the license.
Brazil's President Bolsonaro has attacked environment agencies for delaying development with excessive licensing requirements and has advocated freeing up mining in protected indigenous reserves. His efforts are much like our current president's attacks on the U.S. environment, to lessen the protections our laws have had for human health and the environment and give free reign for extraction on public lands for industry.
Indigenous rights and land in Brazil's Amazon region are at risk. Bolsonaro's belief is that he will "integrate" those citizens and free up property for mining and agriculture. He did this in an executive order transferring the regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves to the agriculture ministry – controlled by agribusiness lobby. This executive order has to be approved by Brazil's legislature in 120 days. Perhaps this tragedy may offer a look into the future for their country, of what de-regulation looks like.
Years ago, one of Miami High School Indian Dance team's youngest dancers said, "We're Indians, we ought to be for the environment." Well, yes, we all should be. Native or not. We have only one mother and only one earth.
There ought to be a law, and the law is still alive in Brazil. Five people have been arrested in connection to the collapse of the ore tailings dam! There was never anyone arrested for any of the environmental disasters we have in Ottawa County. But in a twist of irony our same young Native dancer when he was old enough to drive, did get the first fine for crossing the ditch the county had dug to keep our recreational riders off our chat piles, which are tailings piles to the rest of the world.
The chief of a native community that lives 14 miles from the Brazilian city of Brumadinho reported all life in the river on which his community depends for food, bathing and cloth washing is "dead" and polluted with the mineral-loaded mud. There is always another way to get rid of natives in the way of progress, one way is to pollute their water, kill their fish and ruin their environment for the foreseeable future. There ought to be a law.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim