Dam collapse buries Brazilian town under a deadly river of mud

The collapse of a tailings dam in Brazil has left over 100 people dead

Today's expression: Unfold in real time
Explore more: Lesson #127
February 7, 2019:

A dam in Brazil collapsed, burying the town of Brumadinho under a deadly river of mud. The dam was meant to contain the byproducts of mining operations. The mine operator, Vale, was involved in a previous dam collapse just a few years ago. Over 115 people were confirmed dead and over 200 missing. Questions emerged about whether the dam was inspected properly or whether corners were cut in construction. Plus, learn how to say events "unfold" in English.

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A dam collapsed in Brazil, releasing a deadly river of mud on a nearby town

The collapse of a tailings dam in Brazil has left over 100 people dead after a mass of mud buried portions of a town near Belo Horizonte

Hi everyone this is not Jeff but this is JR, welcome back to Plain English, episode number 127 for Thursday, February 7, 2019. Another amazing episode written by our special host Jeff who comes with us every week with interesting episodes and positive energy every Monday and Thursday, on behalf of all your listeners and myself: thank you Jeff (please don’t fire me for editing the audio without letting you know) Full transcripts and translations like always are on the web site; today’s episode can be found at PlainEnglish.com/127.

I’m Jeff. As always, the show is produced by JR, producer extraordinaire. As I’ve said before, without JR editing the audio and pushing it out to all the podcast directories, I’d just be sitting in my closet talking to myself. Instead I’m sitting in my closet talking to all of you, which is so much fun.

Don’t forget to sign up to get the show e-mails by visiting PlainEnglish.com/mail. The emails have links to English articles about the show and And if you prefer to be in touch by WhatsApp, you can send me a WhatsApp note to +1 312 967 8757. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback on WhatsApp over the last week, and I want to thank all of you that connected on there.

Before we start, I wanted to correct something that I think I didn’t quite get right in last Thursday’s episode about Venezuela. As you may remember in Episode 125, Juan Guaidó, the elected leader of the National Assembly, has laid a claim to the Venezuelan presidency. And in the episode, I said that he symbolically took the oath of office. The way it sounded, now that I look back on it, is that this was a type of protest or a way of attracting attention, but it is actually more than that. The Venezuelan constitution says that if the presidency is vacant—that is to say, if there is no elected president, then the leader of the National Assembly is the president. Guaidó’s contention is that Maduro’s election was illegitimate—it wasn’t an election at all. So since there was no legitimate election, under the country’s constitution, he, as leader of the National Assembly, is the rightful president. And so he is asserting a legitimate claim to be president—it’s not just a form of protest. And it is on that basis that the other countries have recognized him as president. So I wanted to make that clear.


Dam collapse leaves at least 115 people dead

A mining dam collapsed in the town of Brumadinho, near the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil. It unleashed a deadly river of poisonous mud that covered parts of the town of Brumadinho, destroying everything in its path. And a new video shows the destruction unfolding in real time. You can see the mud rushing along a path, covering houses and commercial buildings in toxic mud. In one part of the video, you can see vehicles trying to escape, but being covered in the sludge.

This was one of the worst mining disasters in Brazil’s history and, as of last weekend, it had left 115 people dead, with another 238 missing. The company responsible for the dam, Vale, has promised to compensate families of victims and has promised to cooperate in investigations. Contractors who had inspected the dam recently and certified its safety have been arrested. The government has promised a full investigation.

Already there are allegations that the company, Vale, could have foreseen this type of disaster and built the dam with only cost savings in mind. The type of dam involved was a tailings dam, and it’s different from what you might be imagining on a river. The kinds of dams you most commonly see are used to either generate electricity—those are hydroelectric dams—or to control flooding. Those dams interrupt a river’s flow, and the operator adjusts the flow of a river to control flooding downstream.

This was different. This was a dam used to contain tailings, which are essentially the bits of mud, earth, and water left over after valuable minerals have been extracted from the earth. I, personally, didn’t know until today that this type of dam existed, but they are some of the biggest manmade structures on earth. As companies dig for minerals, such as gold, iron ore, copper, and such, they separate out the valuable bits, but they need to store all the material that they discard in the process of finding the valuable metals. Those are the tailings, and mining companies gradually build dams to contain them. Unlike dams in a river, which open and close and let water through, these dams are meant to just contain the muddy sludge of discarded earth that is the byproduct of mining operations.

So, as bad as a flood is, a collapsed tailings dam is much worse. It’s not just water and dirt. It’s a toxic mixture of all kinds of metals and materials that used to be buried deep below the earth’s surface—and it’s very poisonous. The dam that collapsed released 12 million cubic meters of mud and debris; it covered all the mining buildings nearby and part of the town of Brumadinho. The video showing the rush of sludge through the town is disturbing – there’s no way to escape it; it’s thick, poisonous sludge, and it just covered and buried anyone that was in its way.

In addition to the human lives lost, the rivers and waterways in the area are now poisoned. The nearby Paraopeba River has turned to a dark color and local villagers can no longer fish or bathe in it; dead fish are rising to the surface, poisoned from the material released from the dam.

Now, attention is turning to how this could have happened in the first place. The government has already arrested five people, including three employees and two contractors. Allegations have surfaced that Vale cut corners in the construction of the dam in order to build it at the lowest possible cost. That is, unfortunately, a not-uncommon occurrence when building tailings dams. Because these dams are not used in the production for mining companies, they tend to be a lower priority, so many mining companies try to save money on these, especially in parts of the world with less strict regulation. Vale has said that it will close 19 tailings dams in the area and that it would suspend mining activity in Minas Gerais. It has also promised to pay 100,000 reais in compensation to the families of victims.

This comes just three years after a similar type of dam burst in 2015, in what was then considered the worst environmental tragedy in Brazil’s history. Vale was involved in that disaster, too: it was ordered to pay millions of reis in damages, but only a small portion was actually paid out.


I want to say hi and thank you to Julio and his girlfriend Marjorie from the city of Cotia, Brazil. He said a lot of people in Cotia listen to Plain English, which is fantastic—so a big hello and thank you to Julio, Marjorie and all the other listeners in Cotia. Julio and another listener, Michael, from Poá near Sao Paulo, both suggested today’s topic, so thank you for that.

By the way, the one thing I never realized until just this week is that a lot of you listen in your families. I heard from several people who listen with their husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend, and I think that’s so cool.

I haven’t mentioned MosaLingua in a while, but I wanted to mention once again that we have a great partnership with MosaLingua. This is an innovative new language-learning company and one of their biggest offerings is English-language programs. It’s all online, and you can take courses, build your vocabulary, work on your pronunciation. It’s all there at MosaLingua—they even have some free apps. So check out PlainEnglish.com/learn. It’s fun; it’s interactive; it’s all online; and millions of people have tried it before you, including me. I use it in Spanish and it has really helped. You guys know I travel, and obviously I do the podcast, so it’s hard to fit time to study into my busy schedule. But it’s easy to study for just a few minutes at a time with MosaLingua, and at least that way I feel I’m making a little progress every day. So check it out once more, a href=”https://plainenglish.com/learn” target=”_blank”>PlainEnglish.com/learn.

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Expression: Unfold in real time