Operations at Samarco remain halted over legal disputes relating to damages even after the companies settled a $US5.28 billion civil lawsuit last year.
Schvartsman said the dam that burst on Friday at the Feijao iron mine was being decommissioned and had a capacity of 12 million cubic meters – a fraction of the roughly 60 million cubic meters of toxic waste released by the Samarco dam break.
“The environmental impact should be much less, but the human tragedy is horrible,” he told journalists at Vale’s offices in Rio de Janeiro. He said equipment had shown the dam was stable on January 10 and it was too soon to say why it collapsed.
Fire brigade spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Aihara said the torrent of mud stopped just short of the local Paraopeba river, a tributary of Brazil’s longest river, the Sao Francisco.
“Our main worry now is to quickly find out where the missing people are,” Aihara said on GloboNews cable television channel. Scores of people were trapped in nearby areas flooded by the river of sludge released by the dam failure.
Helicopters plucked people covered in mud from the disaster area, including a woman with a fractured hip who was among eight injured people taken to hospital, officials said.
The Feijao mine is one of four in Vale’s Paraoeba complex, which includes two processing plants and produced 26 million tonnes of iron ore in 2017, or about 7 per cent of Vale’s total output, according to information on the company’s website.
Feijao alone produced 7.8 million tonnes of ore in 2017.
Television reports showed people running away as the dam broke and nearby fields with bean crops destroyed by packed mud.
President Jair Bolsonaro said he lamented the accident and sent three cabinet ministers to the area.
“We will take all the possible steps to minimise the suffering of families and victims,” Bolsonaro said in a speech, which he posted on Twitter.
Bolsonaro, who assumed power January 1, planned to tour the area aby helicopter on Saturday. The far-right leader campaigned on promises to jumpstart Brazil’s economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries.
Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation.
The latest spill “is a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies responsible for the tragedy with Samarco dam, in Mariana, also controlled by Vale”, Greenpeace said in a statement.
“History repeats itself,” tweeted Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate. “It’s unacceptable that government and mining companies haven’t learned anything.”
The rivers of mining waste raised fears of widespread contamination.
According to Vale’s website, the mine waste is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a UN report found that the waste from the 2015 disaster “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals”.