Brazil’s president slapped preliminary fines of 250mn reais ($66.2mn) against a mine in the country’s southeast where two dams burst, killing nine people and coating a two-state area with mud and mine waste.
The fines, announced after President Dilma Rousseff flew over the affected area, come as federal prosecutors announced plans to work with state prosecutors to investigate possible crimes that could have contributed to the disaster at the mine, jointly owned by two of the world’s biggest mining companies, BHP Billiton and Vale SA.
Rousseff said the fines, imposed by Brazil’s environmental regulator IBAMA for violations that include river pollution and damages to urban areas where water service has been suspended, could be followed by penalties from other federal or state agencies.
The top government lawyer is working with IBAMA to sue the mine owners for up to $1bn in environmental damages in civil court, a senior administration official said.
“We are determined to hold responsible those who are responsible for this,” Rousseff told reporters, citing the two multinationals by name, as well as their joint venture, Samarco Mineracao SA.
The moves by federal officials toughen the response of a national government, now faced with a disaster affecting two states, that until recently had left much of the official reaction in the hands of the state government of Minas Gerais, a global mining hub and site of the dams.
Earlier, the country’s mining minister said the government would conduct an audit of other dams in the sector.
On Wednesday, Rousseff, a native of Minas Gerais, spoke with the chief executives of BHP and Vale, who held a press conference earlier that day to apologise for the disaster and promised to meet their obligations as the mine’s owners.
During the conversation, Rousseff told them Brazil’s government expected the companies to pay for rescue and cleanup efforts, as well compensation for more than 500 people who were displaced as their homes were destroyed.
On Wednesday, a top federal prosecutor said the federal government would form a task force with Minas Gerais prosecutors to see if federal crimes may have been committed in addition to violations found by the state, responsible for the environmental licensing.
“Vale and BHP were completely careless in terms of prevention,” said Sandra Cureau, an assistant prosecutor general in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. “There has been a total lack of concern with the victims.”
So far there have been nine deaths, BHP said yesterday, citing Samarco, the joint venture company that runs the mine.
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