A dam collapsed at an iron ore mine in Brazil co-owned by BHP Billiton Thursday left at least four dead and dozens missing.
Days after the rupturing of two dams unleashed a massive flood of mud on nearby villages, authorities were still struggling to determine the cause of the disaster or even recover the bodies of as many as 28 people lost in the torrent.
Amid mounting criticism by officials, environmentalists and residents of how the dams collapsed, BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie was due to meet with mine bosses and local authorities at the site of the disaster on Monday.
The Anglo-Australian company, which co-owns mine operator Samarco in a joint venture with its Brazilian rival Vale, said Monday it was providing “all the assistance necessary”.
“BHP Billiton has offered its full support to help the immediate rescue efforts and to assist with the investigation.”
BHP said its operation included a three-tiered dam complex containing mine tailings, or waste. Within this complex, the Fundao dam failed, and the downstream Santarem dam ended up affected. Samarco is monitoring the third dam, called Germano.
The disaster in the mineral-rich south-eastern state of Minas Gerais, directly north of Rio de Janeiro, has prompted a rescue and salvage operation involving about 500 people, many of whom are still searching with the help of dogs and special equipment for victims along the floodplain downstream from the dams.
Authorities late on Sunday recovered two more bodies of possible victims that if confirmed would raise the death toll to four. Of the 28 people listed as missing late Sunday, 13 were mine workers. The remainder were local villagers caught in the destruction, with flooding and mud spreading as far as 100km (60 miles) away.
Those missing were unlikely to be alive, the governor of Minas Gerais said on Sunday.
Speaking at a news conference, Fernando Pimentel, a politician and economist, said no one is sure what triggered Thursday’s failure of the dams, unleashing a massive flood of mud, water and debris which destroyed all but a handful of buildings in the village of Bento Rodrigues.
The mud tide has continued to spread, causing flooding in other nearby towns, contaminating the Rio Dolce river and threatening the water supply of several cities in the neighboring state of Espirito Santo.
Government leaders and residents criticized what they say has been lax communication by Samarco.
Residents whose homes ended up destroyed or damaged by sludge stained with mineral waste were especially critical of Samarco for the uncertainty they now face. Authorities said as many as 580 people are taking shelter in hotels or with family and friends.
Samarco is paying for accommodations and relocation, but those affected said the company has given few answers about how long the displacements might last or how they might eventually repair or replace damaged homes.
“They haven’t said until when we can stay or where we’ll go afterwards,” said Gilberto Perreira da Silva, standing outside a hotel where he is staying in the old center of Mariana, the city closest to the mine. The flood waters washed Da Silva’s village away.
Cristiane Temporao, a Samarco employee tending to those at the hotel, asked for patience while the company determines the best course. “When we settle on a plan it’s got to be a good one,” she said.