Threat Remains for Communities Downstream of Samarco Iron Mine

As we reported last week, a catastrophic dam failure at the Samarco iron mine in southern Brazil killed 11 and left 12 missing, buried the town of Bento Rodrigues under millions of cubic meters of toxic mine waste, and left thousands across the region without clean water. Troublingly, the threat of further flooding persists as heavy rains move in and mine operators BHB Billiton and Vale SA scramble to shore up the remaining impoundments.

DigitalGlobe and Google Earth have acquired high resolution imagery of the aftermath, and there are several issues of which mine workers, downstream residents, and emergency responders need to be mindful. First of all, the Santarem impoundment immediately downstream from the failed dam did not break in the initial deluge, though it could very well have been damaged by the 40 million cubic meters of water and mine waste that poured down from Fundao. In the image below you can see that Santarem Dam is still intact, evidenced by visible spillway, but we don’t know whether or not the dam’s structural integrity has been compromised by stress and erosion. 

To the southwest of the failed Fundao dam is the Germano Dam, Samarco’s oldest and largest tailings impoundment. Reportedly this dam is drier and more stable than Santarem and Fundao, but all told the mine operator is mobilizing 500,000 cubic meters of rock to shore up both remaining dams. Reuters reports the repairs could take from 45 to 90 days, meanwhile the regional weather forecasts call for thunderstorms for the next 10 days. Below is the surviving Germano Dam (bottom left) and the failed Fundao Dam (center).

The devastation is not just local, it extends far downstream. At the far eastern edge of DigitalGlobe’s recent acquisition, 40 km away as-the-crow-flies, a small farm/compound was partially wiped out by the flood of toxic red mud. You can see a bridge wiped out, the floodplain inundated, and multiple structures erased by the force of the flash flood. 

Image Credit: DigitalGlobe/Google Earth Outreach

To put this disaster in perspective, current estimates put the volume of the flood so far at 40 million cubic meters of mud, debris, and toxic waste. That makes this spill 2.6x larger than the infamous Johnstown Flood which killed over 2,200 in Pennsylvania back in 1889. 

We urge everyone living and working in the area and downstream to exercise extreme caution. The company reports they are monitoring the surviving dams with “radar, lasers, and drones,” but as the last image shows, the impact of another spill could be deadly even miles away from Bento Rodrigues. 

 
To view the imagery yourself in Google Earth, download this KML from Google Earth Outreach and DigitalGlobe. 

[Updated] Satellites Reveal Extent of Samarco Mine Disaster in Brazil

[Updated on Nov. 16 with additional satellite images]
On Thursday, Nov. 5 in the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, two mine waste impoundments at the Samarco iron mine failed, burying the nearby town of Bento Rodrigues and sending 62 million cubic meters of toxic sludge downstream – impacting villages and rivers up to 400 kilometers away. So far the death toll is currently at nine, with 19 missing and 80% of the buildings in Bento Rodrigues destroyed. The mine, operated jointly by BHP/Billington and Vale SA, had increased output by 37% over the past year in spite of warnings from an independent report that the dam had design flaws that could lead to just such a failure.


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Image: Christophe Simon AFP/Getty Images
 

Digital Globe, a commercial satellite image provider, has acquired imagery of the aftermath, which is currently being analyzed by volunteers at the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT). If you are familiar with Open Street Map, you can give them a hand. Below we have pulled together some of the before-and-after visualizations put together by regional data transparency and open mapping group– Codigo Urbano
 Above is a broad view of one of the failed impoundments and the former town of Bento Rodrigues, population ~600. Below is a closer view of a part of the town that was buried under the toxic sludge. 
 Finally, on the Landsat 8 imagery we’ve complied below, you can see just how far downstream the impacts go – turning the river banks orange. High levels of toxicity have been detected in water samples taken 400 kilometers downstream.


For reference, here is an annotated version of the “after” image.

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Additionally, a Pleiades satellite operated by Airbus collected the following hi-resolution imagery of the disaster area. 

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See more at – www.disastercharter.org.

And to compare Landsat imagery, side-by-side and close-up, click the image below. 

 

A little more than a year ago we saw a similar disaster unfold at the Mt. Polley Gold Mine in Canada. Yet, every new mine proposal (like the Pebble Mine, currently on hold but proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska) assures us that modern technology and responsible mining practices will make these disasters a thing of the past. If that’s the case, why are we having déjà vu all over again? 

Freaky Fracking – Mapping How Wellpads are Carving Up Ohio

We don’t usually do seasonally-themed maps, but this map tracing the footprint of wellpads in Ohio’s Marcellus and Utica Shales just happens to work best with the colors associated with All Hallows Eve. Over the past year our FrackFinders and partners at Walsh University have helped us map shale drilling in eastern Ohio. Below you can see the total area of area of wellpads displayed using scaled “bubbles” which show the size of the wellpads relative to each other. This top-level view helps you see where drilling is the densest, and locate the largest and smallest wellpads. 



If you zoom in closer, you will see the actual outline of individual wellpads to scale. In this map there are 320 sites, all traced out by students at Walsh University participating in our FrackFinder collaborative image analysis projects. The median area of these wellpads is 13,787 square meters, or 3.4 acres. If you recall, we recently used this number to help visualize similar drilling in western Pennsylvania


The largest pad was 17 acres and the smallest pad was 0.6, and all told we found 1,100 acres of Ohio fields and forest converted to gravel wellpads. The total impact of drilling extends beyond just the wellpads we mapped in this phase of the project, so in future we will be working to repeat this approach in other states and looking at total landscape impacts. This tutorial video we created for the project will show you exactly what we’ve mapped here. 
 
 
Understanding the public and environmental impacts of drilling is complicated, especially since these industrial operations are scattered all across the landscape; some sites are remote while others are right next to homes and farms. But the data you help create in these projects enable SkyTruth and our partners to correlate this data about when and where drilling occurred with public health and environmental data. This research is starting to bear fruit as our partners at Johns Hopkins recently released a study showing that living in the most active quarter of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus gasfield was associated with a 40% increase in the likelihood of pregnant mothers giving birth prematurely. Scary indeed.