The mine that kills

The mine that kills

(Minaçu) – Albertino de Oliveira is a broken man. He has seen seven members of his family die in the past ten years. “My wife, my father, a brother, three uncles, a cousin, “ says the man with white hair at the age of 54. His family members all have something in common: they were all employees of the asbestos mine in the city of Minaçu. 

Albertino has a list of 30 people who suffer from mesothelioma or have spots on their pleura. These are illnesses typical of asbestos workers. Besides some of the names, Alertino writes the letter “F” or “falecidos”, that is, deceased.

From 1973 to 1988, he also worked in the mine, bagging the fibers. “Fifteen years of work in a cloud of dust with pieces of cotton up my nose serving as my only form of protection,” he says. He is not sick yet, but it is a struggle for those who have breathed the fiber for years that are dying today.

Albertino has calculated that in the coming years, around 500 people will develop medical issues related to asbestos, among whom many will be former employees of the mine but also those who simply lived in the area, that up until 1987 were totally immersed in the white asbestos dust. 

In this area of the state of Goiàs, found 400 kilometers north of Brasilia, in the center of Brazil, the former employees don’t have a voice. Some have received settlements, others are trying to years after leaving the company, still without having their illnesses recognised. La Sama, already owned by the most infamous company, even in Italy, Eternit, have almost always obtained extra-judicial agreements with all its victims, so as not to be cited in any penal proceedings. In Minaçu, a city in which around 30 thousand people live, criticising asbestos puts the only local employer in danger. “The town was born with asbestos and it will die with it” says Albertino.

Around 70% of the taxes collected by the local government come from mining activities. WIth a total of 300 thousand tonnes extracted every year, it is the third largest asbestos mine on the planet, ones in Russia and Cananda. 

And the only one still active in Latin America. Around 13% of all asbestos sold around the world comes from Minaçu.

For those form Sama, asbestos is not dangerous, not when it is carefully managed, for example, by limiting the contact between workers and the asbestos dust. 

“The workers were forced to work with masks and uniforms, carefully washing themselves at the end of each shift. The mine extraction sites, today, are sprayed with large volumes of water pumped by out by trucks in order to remove the dust,” explains Adelman Araujo, president of the labour union for the asbestos workers in Minaçu, which knows that asbestos can cause cancer, but denies every case of contamination in the city. “Of the 16 thousand people that have worked in the mine since it opened in 1967, only 2% have become sick as a result on the handeling of asbestos, Minaçu is not a city that causes cancer” the sindicate says. From a number of 396 to 13, and all the while, cancer has already found its victim in a small, humble house warmed by the strong afternoon sun. Maria de Lourdes opens the gate, she takes refuge in the shade and the sweat that covers her tired face dries. On one of the walls, there is a photo of her husband, Claudivino, who died in 2002 at the age of 56. “A mesothelioma killed him, he suffered unbearable pain. “ From 1977 to 1990, he worked in the mine. “At night, when he returned from the site, he threw up endless amounts of blood,” Maria de Lourdes continued. “He had so much pain in his lungs that even drinking water was an ordeal. He knew that this was a sign of something being wrong, they always hid the fact that asbestos kills.”

La Sama has never taken responsibility for the deaths of its workers. The widow has never received any compensation. She has not even had access to the autopsy of her husband. On his death certificate, the doctors of Sama describe the man as a person of fragile health and the cause of death as the excessive consumption of alcohol. “Claudivino never drank a drop of alcohol,” Marina de Lourdes told us. 

There are several similar cases to this in Minaçu. According to a document sent out in August 2012 by the minister of health, between 2000 and 2010 2,400 people died as a result of asbestos related illnesses. The trend is of a rapid increase in the number of cases in the past few years, the study concluded.

Minaçu, “the great mine” in the language of Tupi Guarani, may, however, have its days numbered, as in November of 2018 the supreme court of Brazil prohibited the extraction and the use of asbestos in all domestic territories, but in the following December, Rosa Weber, president of the supreme court, suspended this measure, pending its official publication, which a year later has still not taken place with no future previsions expected. La Sama (Ethernit), today, continues to extract asbestos. 

“If it were to close it would be a disaster for Minaçu, the mine has 500 workers and 400 service providers,” says Adelman Araujo, the sindicate, who continues “it indirectly sustains 15 thousand people If it closes, 70% of residents will flee the city.”

In front of his house, Albertino bends down to take a piece of bitumen raised by the heat. “Here, we walk on asbestos,” he says showing the white misty fiber on the tar. The asphalt, which was recently resurfaced, is made up of rocks derived from the mine. 

In Minaçu, the road from hell is littered with good intentions.