2013 study warned of Samarco dam break risk

As the death toll from the Samarco tailings dam disaster continues to rise while BHP shares fall to the lowest prices since 2005, questions are being raised over the preventative measures taken to prevent a disaster from occurring.

Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff has promised to hold BHP Billiton and Vale responsible for failing to follow laws and adequately preparing for a possible disaster.

The fines, announced after the Brazilian president flew over the affected area where two dams burst resulting in the death of nine people, came as federal prosecutors announced plans to work with their state counterparts to investigate possible crimes that could have contributed to the disaster at the mine.

A technical document conducted by professors at the University Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG) two years prior to the accident spoke of a risk of a tragedy, identifying points of contact between the mining and tailings dam.

“With the evolution of saturation because of the natural flow of surface water from rain, the area above the equilibrium level would be saturated,” the document said.

“Depending on the break radius in the process, there may be several collapses at different levels of slopes and create of flow-on material with large barren mass moving downstream toward the dam body of Fundao and its surroundings.”

BHP has three South American joint ventures that are presently operated on an arm's-length basis by management independent of any of the shareholders.

Those ventures are Colombian coal crown jewel Cerrejon, and giant copper mine Antamina in Peru, while the third is Samarco. 

But even before the Brazil incident, safety was likely to feature on the agenda of BHP's annual general meeting in Perth this Thursday, given the five fatalities the miner recorded in the 2014-15 year.

UFMG experts made a number of recommendations, such as presentation of a contingency plan in case of accidents and monitoring by the government of the risks to the environment.

A public civil investigation has been opened by a Brazilian MP to investigate the causes of the tragedy, focusing on the possibility of non-compliance with technical standards that maintained Samarco’s structure. 

To keep up to date with Australian Mining, subscribe to our free email newsletters delivered straight to your inbox. Click here.