COLATINA, Brazil (AP) — One year after a dam ruptured and sent a giant wave of metal-laden mud gushing into one of Brazil’s most important rivers, people who live along the banks won’t drink the water and fishermen are afraid to eat their catch.
Upward of 10 billion gallons of mud filled with mining waste buried towns in the Nov. 5 dam break that has been described as the worst environmental disaster in Latin America’s largest country. Nineteen people perished.
Across 5,000 acres — about six times the size of New York City’s Central Park — the onslaught of mud crushed thousands of trees and wildlife. In the river, more than 14 tons of fish died, mostly after mud got stuck in their gills. An equally large amount of aquatic plants died when turbid waters blocked out the sunlight needed to survive.
The environmental damage was so vast that even a year later, many people in the area won’t drink or cook with water from their faucets because, unlike the groundwater, it’s connected to a network of reservoirs the Doce River feeds into. On a recent day, construction worker Samuel Alves de Andrade was among several people lining up outside a hut for well water sourced by an aquifer in the city of Colatina, about 407 miles (655 kilometers) northeast of Rio de Janeiro.
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“This water is a lot better than what comes from the river. We have to do what’s best for us,” he said as he filled plastic jugs for family members.
Fishermen say they’re staying away from the river because they keep finding fish with red spots and wart-like bumps, prompting environmental authorities to launch their own studies. A judge has ordered Samarco— a venture between giants Vale of Brazil and BHP Billiton of Australia— to pay for independent studies, but it’s unclear when results will be released.
“I have been fishing in the Doce River waters for more than 30 years, but now I don’t have the guts to eat that fish,” said Jose de Fatima Lemes, president of the Colatina fishermen’s association.
Residents and environmental experts say subsequent cleanup efforts by mega mining company Samarco have been slow and ineffective.
Doubts also persist about the local government’s assurances that Doce River’s water is safe to consume.
“The mud is still all over the banks,” said Andre Dos Santos, a biologist at the Federal University of Sao Carlos who has collected samples along the Doce River since the disaster. “The river will never be the same.”
Rich in history and commerce, the Doce River had long been a reliable source of water and food for millions of residents and thousands of companies along its banks.
Samarco’s chief officer for sustainable projects, Maury de Souza Jr., said the company is advancing in its cleanup and has not found any water quality problems.
Ubaldina Isaac, of Brazil’s environmental ministry, said a key government priority now is to reforest the banks to prevent rainwater from dragging back into the river the mine waste that remains wedged in the dirt.
One recent morning, Isaac gestured to some recently planted bushes that had already died or rooted out even before the rainy season had fully kicked off in November. She said the plants should have lasted through the wet season that stretches into the first months of the year.
Without sufficient vegetation “we have no system to hold the waste, and so it continues flowing into the river,” she said.
Rio Doce was initially feared by Portuguese gold explorers because of the difficulties they encountered navigating its zig-zagging path. But in the 19th century, communities formed along the river’s path through the thick Atlantic rainforest as mining activity and cattle ranching gradually increased.
Today, many businesses operate along the Doce, including fishing, steelmaking and companies that produce paper and charcoal. Hundreds of fishermen who lost their livelihood in the disaster receive a monthly compensation of about $400 from Samarco, plus $80 more for each of their dependents. Some say they used to sell their fish for as much as $1,200 a month.
On a recent afternoon, fisherman Diomar Lordes visited the river with his son and they sat on the broken wooden boat that carried him through the waters for decades.
“I have no hope I will fish here again,” Lordes said. “It’s like we lost a relative. A life ended.”