Criminal charges expected to be filed over Vale dam collapse

September 20, 2019

The first criminal charges stemming from the tailings dam collapse at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine in the Brazilian town of Brumadinho are expected to the filed in the coming week against employees of mining giant Vale SA and German safety inspector TÜV SÜD.

The Wall Street Journal reported that police expect to formally accuse eight to 12 people from both companies for the crime of false representation in the first of a series of charges, alleging that certificates produced by TÜV SÜD to attest to the stability of Vale’s fateful dam were issued fraudulently.

The dam failure in January resulted in the deaths of at least 270 people and happened three years and two months after the Mariana dam disaster, which killed 19 people and destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues. The Mariana disaster is considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history and is still under investigation. That dam was owned jointly by Vale and BHP.

“The accused individuals invented an inadequate methodology to justify giving the dam the minimum safety rating,” a person familiar with the probe told the Wall Street Journal, adding that forensic studies by the police showed the methods used were insufficient to guarantee the stability of the dam.

Under Brazilian law, police can only formally accuse suspects, while it is up to prosecutors to file the charges before a judge.

Police are expected to recommend further charges against individuals and companies over the course of the probe.

A spokeswoman for TÜV SÜD said the company wouldn’t comment on the case, other than to say the group has cooperated fully with the authorities in the investigation. A spokeswoman for Vale declined to comment.

Vale has said it had no knowledge of any imminent risk at the dam, and has cooperated fully with authorities.

Since the dam’s collapse, authorities have narrowed in on safety audits carried out by TÜV SÜD in June and September last year, which concluded the dam at Brumadinho was stable. Vale used those certificates to prove the dam’s stability to regulatory bodies in Brazil.

An investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that employees of both Vale and TÜV SÜD knew for months of dangerous conditions at the mine-waste dam before it collapsed. Yet inspectors certified the dam as safe, expressing worry about losing contracts with Vale, the dam’s owner and a major client.

In police testimony seen by the Journal, Makoto Namba, a senior engineering inspector at TÜV SÜD, told police he felt pressured by a Vale official to sign the dam’s safety certification. TÜV SÜD had contracts for safety audits at tens of other Vale dams in Brazil, as well as new projects at the dam in Brumadinho. Namba’s lawyer said he would only comment once the accusations were made public.

In May, an investigation by the Journal also found that several of Vale’s own workers at the mine warned their bosses the dam was about to collapse. Supervisors brushed aside those concerns, in some cases citing fears about extra expenditures.

The crime of false representation, which can carry a prison sentence of up to six years in Brazil when related to some cases of environmental damage, may also serve as the basis for other charges, investigators have previously told the Journal.

 

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