Brazil dam collapse: 200 missing, multiple deaths feared

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About 200 people are missing after a dam collapsed in southeast Brazil with fears the disaster caused a number of deaths. 

A statement from the fire brigade’s headquarters in the city of Belo Horizonte, the state capital of Minas Gerais state, not far from the site of the disaster, said scores of people are trapped in areas by the river of sludge released by the dam burst.

Emergency services on Friday were still responding to the situation in and around the town of Brumadinho, which has a population 39,000, and did not yet have a toll, a local fire service official told AFP news agency.

“According to accounts that we are receiving, there were several deaths,” the official said.

President Jair Bolsonaro will visit the affected region on Saturday, a government spokesman said. Brazil’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, was already on his way.

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Bolsonaro “regrets the possible loss of life” and was closely following the situation, the spokesman, Otavio Santana do Rego Barros, told reporters.

Television images taken from the air showed a wide swath of devastation cut through vegetation and farmland. Several damaged homes could be seen, and some were destroyed with nothing but their tiled roofs left sitting on mud.

An emergency team from the Ibama environmental protection agency had been dispatched to the zone impacted by Friday’s dam collapse to determine the damage, Salles told the G1 news website.

The agency estimated the collapse had released a million tonnes of water and mud, according to the Estadao newspaper.

Five helicopters were dispatched to the area to search for people in distress and evaluate the scale of the destruction. Civil defence officials said people living in low-lying areas in the town had been evacuated from their homes.

Brumadinho’s municipality issued an alert on social media warning residents to move away from the Paraopeba river that the dam had been holding back.

The dam belonged to Brazil’s giant mining company Vale, which confirmed its collapse and said “the total priority is to protect the lives of employees and inhabitants”. It did not say what caused the collapse.

The accident comes three years after Brazil’s worst environmental disaster when a larger dam owned jointly by Vale and BHP Billiton broke in the same region, burying local homes and killing 19 people.

Friday’s incident appeared to pale in comparison with the 2015 disaster in Mariana in Minas Gerais, when the tailings dam at the Samarco iron ore mine burst.

Brumadinho is located 60km (40 miles) southwest of Belo Horizonte.

The town is best known to tourists for Inhotim, an outdoor contemporary art museum, which was evacuated as a precaution. The venue receives 35,000 visitors a month.

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