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Officials say some 200 people are missing near the southeast Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte after a tailings dam owned by a mining company collapsed Friday, unleashing a torrent of muddy waste and debris.
At least four people have been hospitalized but so far there are no reports of fatalities, according to the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo. The dam is owned by the mining giant Vale, which also operates a nearby iron ore mine.
Fire brigade spokesman Lieutenant Pedro Aihara said the missing approximately 100 Vale employees were in the area at the time of the incident, Reuters reports.
Video footage from the site showed a helicopter rescue crew hovering over a wide field of reddish-brown mud, struggling to pull victims free.
In a statement, Vale confirmed the dam breach at the Feijão Mine in Brumadinho in Minas Gerais state. It's not clear why the dam ruptured.
"The first information indicates that the tailings has reached the companies administrative area and part of the Vila Ferteco community," it said.
Fábio Schvartsman, the company's CEO, apologized for the disaster, calling it "unacceptable," according to the Brazilian newspaper O Globo. He said that the dam was stable but in the process of being decommissioned. The company says it has initiated its "emergency plan for dams."
Before and after photos of the area show a wide expanse of trees, fields, roads and buildings leveled by the river of sludge.
In 2015, 19 people were killed when another Brazilian dam overseen by Vale — along with the mining company BHP Billiton — collapsed, according to the AP. It was described as the worst environmental disaster in the country's history, causing widespread contamination of waterways. The companies reached a multibillion-dollar settlement last year with Brazilian authorities over the collapse.
That dam reportedly had a far greater capacity than the one that collapsed Friday.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's recently-elected president, announced on Twitter that he was sending his Secretary of Civil Defense and his environmental minister to the scene, along with other top officials; Bolsonaro will travel to the affected area on Saturday.
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