Conservation news

CEO and execs charged with homicide in Samarco dam collapse in Brazil

  • On November 5, 2015, a Samarco tailings dam burst in Minas Gerais state, causing an avalanche of 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste, killing 17 people, while two remain missing.
  • Indictments of “qualified homicide with eventual intent” have been handed down for Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi and five other executives for dam safety and security violations, plus an engineer from VogBR due to his responsibility for the report assuring the dam’s safety.
  • Investigators have found that that the Samarco company was aware of decreasing long term drainage from the dam, which resulted in a buildup of water behind it, which finally led to the collapse.
Some of the horrific damage done by the Samarco tailings dam collapse. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Brazil’s civil police in Minas Gerais have ordered the provisional detention of Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi (on leave of absence) and five other mining company executives for dam safety and security violations, plus an engineer from VogBR who was responsible for the report ensuring the stability of the Fundão tailings impoundment that burst on November 5, releasing 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste into the Doce River killing at least 17 people.

According to police chief Rodrigo Bustamante, it has been proved that the seven employees were responsible for the disaster, since they did nothing to prevent it, although they had the power to make decisions that would have assured the security of the dam.

The corporate executives were indicted for qualified homicide with eventual intent, (when there is no intention to kill, but acceptance of the risk of death) in the deaths of 17 people. They were also indicted for causing flooding that threatens man or property; and for pollution of drinking water — the massive spill, Brazil’s largest mining disaster, reached the southern Atlantic Ocean.

17 are known dead in the worst mining disaster in Brazil’s history. Two are still unaccounted for. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The indictments are part of an inquiry opened by the police to learn who is responsible for the failure of the Fundão dam. A second inquiry, planned for completion by March 22nd, is investigating Samarco and its parent companies, Vale and BHP Billington, for environmental crimes and possible dam licensing violations. The corporations, being legal entities, can only answer for environmental crimes and not for homicide.

The police stated that the main cause of the dam breach was excessive water building up inside the impoundment. Drainage failures had been occurring since the tailings dam was inaugurated in 2008, according to reports issued by companies hired by Samarco. While the tailings storage capacity was expanded last year, the level of water flow had been declining throughout the years. In September, 2015, for instance, the water volume draining from the dam was lower than in April, 2014.

“Instead of increasing, the water flow got reduced, and more liquid remained inside the dam,” said Otávio Guerra, a civilian police expert. That reduced flow caused a greater delay in the drying of waste and a buildup of water, which resulted in decreased stability and safety of the containment structure, until finally the dam gave way.

A mud-spattered family portrait in a ruined home. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
A massive wave of toxic mud swept away the lives of locals living below the mining waste impoundment. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

In a statement in response to the homicide charges, Samarco said: “We consider mistaken the indictments and the precautionary measures of detention proposed by the police, and will wait for the court decision to take appropriate action.”

The mining company statement went on to say that “since the breakup of the Fundão dam, Samarco and its shareholders (Vale and BHP Billiton) have launched an external investigation with the help of an internationally renowned company, and the participation of professionals from several fields, such as geotechnical engineers, geologists, engineers specialized in soil mechanics and fluids, and seismological experts.”

A Samarco press officer informed Mongabay by email that the “internationally renowned company” in question is the U.S. law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP. With offices in many parts of the world, the company also has a branch in São Paulo.

Antonio Carlos de Oliveira, prosecutor of the Public Ministry of Minas Gerais, plans to present a formal complaint to the court of justice against the seven indicted on Friday, February 26th. However, he hasn’t said whether he will endorse the request for provisional arrest made by police chief Rodrigo Bustamante.

Also on Friday, Samarco and its parent companies are scheduled to sign an extrajudicial settlement with the Federal Attorney General’s office. The document will detail how the mining companies are going to finance environment recovery and compensate those affected by the dam collapse and toxic spill.

Officials continue to assess the death, destruction and ongoing environmental harm caused by the dam’s failure. Photo by Romerito Pontes from São Carlos licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.