SAO PAULO – The number of confirmed fatalities following last week’s failure of a mine tailings dam in the southeastern Brazilian town of Brumadinho reached 110 on Thursday, the Minas Gerais state fire department said Thursday.
Seven days after the catastrophe, the search operation is entering “a somewhat more difficult phase,” the department spokesman, Lt. Pedro Aihara, told a press conference.
“The bodies that were on the surface areas have already been found and recovered,” he said, adding that from this point on, the effort will rely on excavators and other heavy machinery.
The death toll “will certainly rise” even as the pace of the work may slow, Aihara said.
Authorities have positively identified 71 of the 110 bodies recovered so far.
Aihara said that firefighters and others involved in the operation were repeatedly interrupted Thursday as rain fell on the sludge of mine waste, mud and water that buried homes and vehicles when the dam failed last Friday.
Aircraft have logged 228 flight-hours over Brumadinho as part of the search for bodies, he said.
The mine in Brumadinho is owned by Brazil’s Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore producer, and most of the victims were employees of the company.
The dam rupture came as many workers at the complex were having lunch in the cafeteria, which was buried within seconds.
A little more than three years before Friday’s disaster in Brumadinho, a similar tailings dam collapse at a mine jointly owned by Vale and Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP in Mariana, a municipality about 120km (75mi) away, killed 19 people and caused what was until then Brazil’s worst environmental catastrophe.
Vale has been hit with two fines: one from the Brazilian Environmental Institute for 250 million reais ($67.5 million) and the other from the Minas Gerais state government for 99 million reais ($26.7 million).
The courts have also frozen 12 billion reais ($3.18 billion) of Vale funds to guarantee the payment of compensation to victims, environmental restoration and other recovery efforts.
Every one of the more than 400 tailings dams in Minas Gerais are at “some risk of rupture,” according to Julio Cesar Grilo, regional director of the Brazilian Environmental Institute.
The federal government has ordered inspections of all mining dams in the country.