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Mine Wastewater Floods Countryside In Brazil After 2 Dams Fail

A region of southeastern Brazil is struggling to cope with a devastating flood, after two dams broke outside an iron ore mine and sent mineral waste and thick red mud over a large valley.

The wave of mud was more than 8 feet tall, according to local reports. Photos from the scene show the mud overwhelmed houses, ripping off rooftops and leaving a coating of mud — and in one case, setting a car atop a structure's walls.

The dams had been holding water and iron ore tailings when they failed Thursday afternoon near the towns of Mariana and Bento Rodrigues in the central region of Minas Gerais, about 280 miles north of Rio de Janeiro.

Emergency officials say that at least one death, of a mining company employee, has been confirmed in the aftermath. Brazilian media say the death toll is likely to rise Friday, as search crews resume their work.

The rural area that received the brunt of the flooding has about 500 to 600 residents, according to multiple reports. Hundreds of stranded people have been rescued, Globo TV reports. The agency adds that 16 mine workers were still missing.

The flow of mud and ore tailings has reached a city more than 60 miles away, according to local R7 Noticias.

The mine is operated by Samarco, which says the waste in the mud is "inert" and is mostly sand, with "no chemical that is harmful to health." The company adds that the most recent inspection of the dams by the regional environmental office took place in July, finding "total safety conditions."

According to both Globo and R7, the breaches occurred hours after tremors were reported at the site, citing a witness and a representative of the mining company.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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