The disaster you could see from space: how a podcast went inside an eco catastrophe

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Nineteen dead, hundreds homeless and 700,000 taking legal action. Eco true-crime podcast Dead River delves into a Brazilian dam’s collapse – and how it’s led to the UK’s biggest ever class-action lawsuit

I listen to Dead River while running home from a quick dip, surrounded by fag butts and Lucozade bottles, in the brown stretch of what Thames Water describes as “our most important water source”. But as I listen to the descriptions of 43.7mn cubic metres of toxic, brown mud – the “tailings” of just one Brazilian iron ore mine near Mariana – filling more than 645km (400 miles) of watercourses, from the collapsed Fundão dam all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, I realise that, really, I know nothing about dead rivers.

While it is billed as a true crime podcast, Dead River encompasses everything from environmental destruction to colonial history, family tragedy to perilous chase scenes, indigenous anthropology to the sheer brutal fact of what a river carpeted with a million dead fish looks like. It tells the story of Brazil’s worst environmental disaster. According to this podcast, the collapse of the Fundão tailings dam in 2015, which stored the toxic byproducts of iron ore mining, created more immediate devastation even than the continuous felling of the Amazonian rainforest for cattle ranching. It also killed 19 people, made hundreds homeless, and was so vast that it could be seen from space. More than eight years later, those responsible have still not been fully held to account. This has led to the largest class-action lawsuit ever held in the UK, with more than 700,000 plaintiffs seeking justice from Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP through the English and Welsh courts. The company denies the claims against it.

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