21 Brazilian, foreign mining executives charged in dam burst

RIO DE JANEIRO – Prosecutors charged 21 Brazilian and foreign mining executives with manslaughter and various environmental crimes Thursday, nearly a year after a mine dam burst killed 19 people and polluted hundreds of miles of rivers and streams.

The Attorney General’s Office in the state of Minas Gerais said those charged are mostly Brazilians and also include American, Australian and British board members and directors at the Brazilian mining companies Samarco and Vale, and Australia’s BHP Billiton.

Samarco is a joint venture of the two larger companies. Former CEO Ricardo Vescovi, current COO Kleber Luiz de Mendonca and others are accused of causing what many call South American nation’s worst environmental disaster. All three companies issued statements denying the charges.

Federal prosecutor Jose Adercio Leite Sampaio alleged that experts told executives, board members and other company officials that the basin of mine dump could burst, but they chose to ignore the danger and continue extracting from the rich iron ore deposit to compensate for falling commodities prices.

“They deliberately prioritized money over safety,” Sampaio said in a news conference. “They knew there were problems and did not make the decisions that could have improved safety.”

Sampaio said the operation had no emergency protocol to protect villages downstream from the dam.

When the dam ruptured it flooded the area with some 40 million cubic meters of waste, and prosecutors also filed environmental charges related to the death of animal life.

Prosecutors said they found an internal company document from the breach that estimated such an accident could cause 20 deaths and serious environmental damage and interrupt business for up to two years.

In a statement, Samarco, which is also appealing seven fines handed down by the Environment Ministry, insisted the companies did not know the dam was in danger of collapsing.

It argued that the Attorney General’s Office disregarded evidence and testimony “proving the company had no prior knowledge of risks to its structure.”

Vale also said its executives at Samarco were never informed of anomalies that “could present real risks” in the basin and promised to prove their innocence in court.

BHP Billiton rejected the charges and said it would “fully support each of the affected individuals in their defence.”

In August the company said the disaster had cost it $2.2 billion.

The companies also face a class-action lawsuit seeking $43 billion in social, environmental and economic damages. Prosecutors said they arrived at that amount by comparing it to the cost of repairing damage from BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.