An Australian is among the 21 people Brazilian prosecutors have filed homicide charges against following BHP and Vale’s Samarco mine disaster in November last year.
The tailings dam collapse in Brazil killed 19 people; spilling contaminated water into local rivers and nearby villages, and eventually flowing out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Its devastation has been compared to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
Those charged also include two Americans, a South African, a Briton, a French man, and several Brazilians, the BBC reports, who were all employed by Samarco, Vale, and BHP at the time.
One of them is former Samarco chief executive Ricardo Vescovi who was CEO during the disaster.
If found guilty, prosecutors said the accused could face sentences of up to 54 years, according to the AFP.
Lead prosecutor Jose Leite Sampaio said the companies had been aware of the risk of collapse but ignored it; adding that they sought profit rather than safety.
“Security was always of secondary importance. The increase in production at Samarco sought to compensate for the falling value of the ore in order not only to maintain but also to boost profits and dividends,” he said.
BHP, however, rejected the charges against the company and its employees.
“We will defend the charges against the company, and fully support each of the affected individuals in their defence of the charges against them,” the company said.
Vale also rejected the accusations saying prior evidence found its executives and employees “had no prior knowledge of the real risks of the Fundão tailings dam”.
Vale also argued that it has never conducted any acts of operational management in Samarco. They said they “have never been informed by the technical and governing body of Samarco on any irregularities that represent real and/or untreated risks to the tailings dam” and that “they have always been assured that the Fundão tailings dam was regularly assessed not only by the legally competent authorities, but also by a renowned group of independent international consultants.”
Before the case can go to trial, a judge has to approve the charges.
Last month, a panel commissioned to investigate the cause of the dam failure published their findings, pointing to drainage and design flaws rather than regulatory or corporate malpractice.
The report indicated that the dam’s design change between 2011 and 2012 created less efficient drainage, saturating the sand in the dam, and causing liquefaction that eventually led to the wall’s collapse.
Both BHP and Vale have faced a number of lawsuits following the disaster over property and environmental damage. The Samarco joint venture reached a settlement with the Brazilian government for a minimum of $US1.7 billion to be paid over six years. They also agreed to develop a foundation to restore the environment and local communities where remediation is not possible.