One year on, BHP Billiton held to account for the Samarco tailings dam disaster

Mariana dam burst

London Mining Network, UK
Mineral Policy Institute, Australia

MEDIA RELEASE

16 November 2016

One year on, BHP Billiton held to account for the Samarco tailings dam disaster

BHP Billiton’s AGM | Thursday 17th November at 11 am | Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre

At the BHP Billiton Limited AGM in Brisbane this Thursday, dissident shareholders will challenge the company’s board over its response to the Samarco tailings dam disaster. The AGM is being held twelve months on from the disastrous collapse of the Fundão mining waste (‘tailings’) dam at the Samarco iron ore mine in Minas Gerais, Brazil, which is 50-50 owned by BHP Billiton and Brazilian mining giant Vale.

“The dam break led to the destruction of all forms of life in the region. Mud covered everything, resulting in 20 deaths and unmeasurable environmental destruction. We have seen whole communities destroyed by BHP Billiton and Vale’s operations. They have lost everything, without receiving any real compensation. Instead of reparations for the victims, what is becoming evident is the blatant corporate capture of our government by transnational companies”, said Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret, of the Churches and Mining Network in Latin America who attended the BHP Billiton London AGM.

The collapsed waste dam killed twenty people [1], left 700 people homeless and polluted hundreds of kilometres of the Rio Doce river valley. Following the 5 November, 2015 disaster, MAB (People Affected by Dams), a coalition of local communities impacted by Brazil’s thousands of dam projects, made four key demands of Samarco and parent companies BHP Billiton and Vale [2].

Natalie Lowrey, of Australia’s Mineral Policy Institute, said, “BHP Billiton and its associates at Samarco are ignoring those most affected – the people whose lives and livelihoods have been devastated by last year’s tailings dam collapse. The demands being made by MAB, the social movement of people affected by dams, should be accepted. People want meaningful participation in decision-making about the clean-up and compensation, and for everyone who has been affected to be recognised – the companies shouldn’t be picking and choosing who gets help.”

Representatives of communities impacted by the broken dam disaster reiterated these demands at BHP Billiton’s London AGM on 20 October 2016 [3][4]. They were unsatisfied with the company’s responses.  A panel of inquiry was set up to assess the cause of the waste dam collapse without attributing blame, they released a report in August 2016 [5].

Richard Harkinson, of London Mining Network, said, “BHP Billiton appears to be leading on international lobbying for the industry’s ‘learning lessons’ without regulatory change. The panel’s report [6] questioned the efficacy of changes in waste dam design and the sequence of its modifications, and poor management particularly throughout 2011-12, whereby the bases for failure were established through failure and compounded through avoiding good practice.”

On the day of the company’s London AGM, the Brazilian prosecutor’s office charged 26 people for their alleged roles in the disaster, 21 for qualified homicide. This included BHP Billiton and Vale executives on the Samarco board, including a minority who have now left [7]. London Mining Network and the Mineral Policy Institute welcomed this development as a step towards justice [8].

Contacts:
Australia: Natalie Lowrey, natalie.lowrey[at]gmail.com, +61 421 226 200
UK: Richard Harkinson, research[at]londonminingnetwork.org, +44 7563 238179

Notes

[1] Official figures are that 19 people were killed. The community representatives attending the London AGM of BHP Billiton on 20 October were insistent that the number of fatalities was 20, because a pregnant woman lost her baby in a miscarriage which she suffered after being thrown around inside her house by the mud released from the dam.

[2] See MAB’s demands at http://londonminingnetwork.org/2016/10/demands-of-bhp-billiton-2016/

[3] Other matters raised at the London AGM included the health impacts of the Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia (the company is one-third owner), the potential impacts of the Resolution Copper project in Arizona, USA, and the legacy of the company’s Cerro Matoso nickel project in Colombia and its coal operations at the IndoMet project in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. There is a full report of BHP Billiton’s London AGM on the London Mining Network website at: http://londonminingnetwork.org/2016/11/dam-dam-and-double-dam-the-2016-bhp-billiton-agm-in-london/. UK media reported that journalists were excluded from the London AGM: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/10/21/sorry-bhp-but-a-closed-door-hardly-shouts-transparency/

[4] Global mine workers’ union IndustriALL sent a message of solidarity to protesters outside the London AGM: http://londonminingnetwork.org/2016/10/industriall-global-union-protest-letter-to-bhp-billitons-shareholders/. The union also sent representatives to an anniversary act of remembrance in Brazil: http://www.industriall-union.org/hundreds-gather-for-anniversary-of-mine-catastrophe-in-brazil

[5] http://www.mineweb.com/news-fast-news/samarco-dam-failed-due-to-poor-drainage-and-design-investigation/

[6] http://fundaoinvestigation.com/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/oct/20/bhp-billiton-employees-face-charges-on-brazil-dam-disaster and http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/10/21/sorry-bhp-but-a-closed-door-hardly-shouts-transparency/

[8] http://londonminingnetwork.org/2016/10/charges-bhp-billiton-vale-samarco/

[9] The Samarco tailings dam disaster is not the only area of grave concern about BHP Billiton’s impacts around the world, and NGOs want to hold BHP Billiton to their undertaking on transparency in their review of all their waste tailings dams.

Flag_of_Europe.svg_1-300x200This press release has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this press release are the sole responsibility of the named organisations and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

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