It is a shame PNG did not hold BHP mining executives similarly accountable over Ok Tedi and never seems to consider criminal charges in other cases of severe environmental damage
Current and former officials from Vale SA and BHP Billiton and joint venture Samarco Mineração named
Paul Kiernan | Wall Street Journal | October 20 2016
Brazilian federal prosecutors filed homicide charges Thursday against 21 people in connection with a catastrophic collapse of a mining dam last year that killed 19 people.
Those charged include current and former top executives of mining giants Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd. and their joint venture, Samarco Mineração SA. Among them are former Samarco Chief Executive Ricardo Vescovi, Vale’s current iron-ore director Peter Poppinga, and eight Vale and BHP representatives at Samarco.
The charges mark the end of a nearly year long criminal investigation into the Nov. 5, 2015, failure of Samarco’s Fundão tailings dam in southeast Brazil.
Believed to be the biggest disaster of its kind anywhere, the incident released a torrent of sludge that washed away villages, displaced hundreds of people and traveled more than 400 miles through southeast Brazil’s Rio Doce basin before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Almost a year later, the river is still tainted a rusty red from sediment, its washed-out banks visible from the cruising altitude of commercial airliners.
Additional charges against the 21 individuals include the crimes of causing a flood, landslide and grave bodily harm. Vale, BHP and Samarco were also charged with 12 different kinds of environmental crimes. Employees of a consulting firm that performed periodic checkups on Fundão were charged with presenting false stability reports.
In an emailed statement, Samarco said it “refutes” the charges and said the prosecutors ignored defense statements that it presented over the course of the investigation, “which prove that the company had no prior knowledge of the risks to its structure.”
“Safety was always a priority in the management strategy of Samarco, which reiterates that it never reduced investments in this area,” the company added.
BHP Billiton said it “rejects outright the charges against the company and the affected individuals. We will defend the charges against the company, and fully support each of the affected individuals in their defense of the charges against them.”
Vale reaffirmed its “deep respect and total solidarity” with the disaster’s victims but said it “vehemently repudiates” the charges filed Thursday. It added that its representatives on Samarco’s board confirmed that they “were never informed by Samarco’s technical or leadership team of any irregularities that could have represented real or untreated risks to the dam, nor by any consultancy responsible for monitoring the structure.”
The individual defendants couldn’t be reached.
If convicted of “qualified homicide,” the individuals could face sentences of between 12 and 30 years in prison, prosecutors said, adding that Brazil has extradition agreements with most or all of the countries from which the suspects hail.
“[The victims] were killed by the violent passage of the tailings mud, they had their bodies thrown against other objects, such as pieces of wood, they had their bodies mutilated and…dispersed across an area of 110 kilometers,” federal prosecutor Eduardo Santos de Oliveira said at a press conference. “The motivation of the homicides was the excessive greed of the companies—Samarco, here charged, as well as its shareholders—in the name of profit.”
Potential penalties for Vale, BHP and Samarco range from payment of fines and funding of charitable programs to partial or total suspension of their activities. Prosecutors added that they requested damage payments for the victims, the amount of which remains to be determined.
A judge must accept the charges for a trial, which would take place before a jury, to begin.
In a report released in August, the companies presented a report on the factors that contributed to Fundão’s failure.
All three firms have apologized for the disaster and committed to a full remediation of the damage. But Brazilian courts rejected a March settlement signed by the companies and the government. Prosecutors are seeking to replace it with a civil lawsuit filed in May in which they sought 155 billion reais ($49 billion) in damages and compared the Samarco disaster to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The prosecutors’ case hinges what they say is evidence that Samarco and its shareholders were aware of chronic structural problems at Fundão dating back to April 2009. They say Samarco’s board—made up of Vale and BHP officials—was informed of flaws in the dam but responded by pressuring the company to extract more iron ore.
Samarco’s board was also allegedly informed of the likely consequences of a dam failure, prosecutors said. Company risk managers allegedly had estimated as recently as 2015, according to prosecutors, that a collapse of Fundão could kill 20 people, stop Samarco’s operations for two years and deal a substantial blow to the mining companies’ reputations.
Surviving residents of the devastated community of Bento Rodrigues reported after the accident that they received no official warning from Samarco in the crucial minutes after the dam gave way.
“There were internal committees, operational committees, dam committees, in which the issues were discussed, and on those committees there were representatives of Vale and BHP,” prosecutor José Adércio Leite Sampaio said. “Based on the minutes, on what was debated in those minutes, on the documents that were presented at those meetings, we identified the list of people on the charge sheet.”