(Ottawa/Montreal, April 7, 2021) On March 25th, a tailings dam at the Aurizona mine overflowed in Godofredo Viana in the state of Maranhão, Northeastern Brazil, contaminating surrounding rivers and leaving around 4000 residents without potable water. The mine is the property of Canadian mining company Equinox Gold and is one of the biggest gold mines in the country. This socio-environmental emergency is happening as the state of Maranhão reports the highest number of coronavirus deaths in a single day since the onset of the pandemic.
Videos circulated by MAB (the Movement of People Affected by Dams) on social media of the aftermath of the tailings dam disaster show areas covered in mud near the Aurizona community. Families affected demand an urgent potable water supply. The company met with members of the community on the weekend of March 27th, and promised to provide drinking water. However, MAB affirms that the water being distributed by the company is not enough, since water trucks are only servicing some areas and many affected families remain without any access to water.
Quebec group CDHAL (Comité pour les droits humains en Amérique latine) spoke with Jonas Pineiro, a member of the affected community. According to him, the principal transportation route to the Aurizona community was completely blocked by massive piles of dirt and families remained isolated for many days. There’s also contamination of the Tromaí river, a saltwater river, and mangroves, affecting local economies and subsistence activities.
Community members had been sounding the alarm about the stability of the mine. In 2018, a landslide of waste rock swept the road away, blocking access to the community and affecting mangrove habitats and natural water streams nearby. Two years later, the community of Aurizona is once again isolated and water sources contaminated. There are no victims reported this time. As one resident said last week, we “need support because at any moment there could be a tailings dam rupture. If that happens, we are in danger.”
The Canadian firm controls the municipality
Pineiro adds that this tailing spill disaster is an opportunity to bring to light a series of human rights violations that have occurred since the Equinox Gold mining project started operations in 2010:
The company controls the municipality: police, universities, municipal government. There have been cases of criminalization and even assassination of social leaders. The company acts as if all Aurizona district is its private property, preventing local residents from catching crabs and collecting fruits - the traditional source of livelihood for families in the region. Residents that are caught practicing these activities are taken by private security guards to the police. One thing is very clear: these kinds of megaprojects are always accompanied by violence against women, prostitution and illicit activities. It is very important to spread the word about what is happening here throughout the world, including in Canada, the company is headquartered.
Equinox Gold denies any responsibility
Vancouver-based Equinox Gold owns five mines in Brazil. According to its latest corporate presentation (March 22, 2021), it is currently “advancing Pre-feasibility Studies (PFS) for [a] potential underground mine” at the Aurizona mine. High profile mine promoter Ross Beaty owns 11% of its shares and is the company’s chairman.
The company operating the mine is Mineração Aurizona S.A. (MASA), a subsidiary of Equinox Gold.
To date, both MASA and Equinox Gold have denied any responsibility for the tailings spill. While MASA published a press release denying any wrongdoing, the company has not yet delivered the Stability Condition Statement (DCE) to the Brazilian government. On April 4th, the National Mining Agency of Brazil (ANM) ordered the company to suspend operations at the dam. According to MAB, the company has continued, without authorization, to carry out some operations, attempting to cover up evidence that the dam has actually collapsed.
Equinox has yet to publicly address the disaster. The Canadian company has chosen to only engage by e-mail with the communities, and on Twitter, about the situation. In its tweets, Equinox blames the weather for the disaster: “Heavy rains caused rivers and lakes near our Aurizona mine to overflow, affecting drinking water and restricting road access.”
Yet, two years ago when MiningWatch Canada spoke with Rhylin Bailie, Equinox’s VP of investor relations, about the 2018 landslide of waste rock at the mine site, she said that the company was not concerned with future events since they were “not expecting any major rains which will give them time to strengthen the buttresses and stabilize the slope.” This raises the question: as heavy rains were falling in the area two weeks ago, what actions did the company take to prevent the mine’s toxic tailings dam from overflowing?
The National Human Rights Council (CNDH) visited communities affected by the tailings dam spill and asked the Canadian company to clarify the events that led to the tailings spill and provide an updated Dam Safety Plan and Emergency Action Plan. This lack of transparency is not news to Professor in the Social Science department at Viçosa Federal University Tádzio Coelho who has been following Equinox Gold closely for over two years. In the aftermath of the recent disaster, he wrote about how this project is riddled with red flags: from a lack of transparency, social control, and public participation, to lack of official inspection and monitoring.
Lack of transparency and access to safety information
In June of 2020, over 150 frontline communities, civil society organizations and scientists released Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management. The 16 guidelines laid out in the report call on mining companies to put safety over profits when it comes to tailings management. This means adopting best practices, obtaining consent from affected communities, and ensuring corporate accountability.
The guidelines specifically call on mining companies to provide affected communities with information about the safety of tailings dams, and the potential effects a breach or spill could have on the surrounding area. Researchers such as Coelho and community members have criticized the lack of transparency from the company, and specifically the lack of access to safety information.
The guidelines also require that emergency preparedness and response plans be developed together with affected communities. The ANM states the company has developed an Emergency Action Plan; however, local communities are unaware of emergency procedures. According to ANM files, up to 100 people could be impacted by a catastrophic dam failure, however, because community members have not seen a flood map, there is a lot of apprehension in the nearby town of 4,000 people.
The ANM also reports, “there is a moderate concentration of residential, agricultural and industrial installations or of relevant socio-economic-cultural infrastructure in the affected area downstream from the dam.” This information contradicts the Emergency Action Plan for the Vené tailings dam commissioned by the company. The company’s report states, “There are no residents in the area downstream of the dam.” However, there are photographs showing houses and other infrastructure extremely close to the toe of the dam.
At the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) 2021 Convention, Equinox Gold presented documents highlighting its strong ESG commitment to responsible and ethical mining, including for tailings management and community engagement. However, according to Tádzio Coelho, “there is a disconnect between the commitment the company makes on paper or at industry events, and what is actually happening on the ground with affected communities.”
For more information on the Aurizona case:
- Tádzio Coelho, professor in the Social Science department at Viçosa Federal University, Brazil, [email protected]
For more information on tailings dam regulation:
- Jan Morrill, Earthworks, [email protected]
To set up interviews with MAB:
- Rosa Perales, CDHAL, [email protected]
For more information on Equinox:
- Viviana Herrera, MiningWatch Canada, [email protected]