U.K. court to hear lawsuit for victims of deadly Brazil mine collapse and flood
Deluge of toxic tailing water slammed into the town of Mariana in 2015, killing 19
Victims of a 2015 mine collapse disaster in Brazil are hopeful for justice after the U.K.'s court of appeal agreed to hear the case against one of the country's largest mining companies.
"This is the largest environmental disaster ever in Brazilian history," said Tom Goodhead, global managing partner for PGMBM, the law firm behind the lawsuit. "The economic impact and the environmental impact continues to this day."
In November 2015, two dams in the Brazilian city of Mariana collapsed, unleashing about 40 million cubic metres of water and iron ore tailings from the nearby mine, contaminating 640 km of water along the Doce River.
The flood submerged dozens of homes, killing 19 people. The mine reopened in 2020 and this year obtained approval to expand.
The mine is operated by the Brazilian company Samarco, which itself is a joint venture between Brazilian company Vale and British-Australian company BHP. The lawsuit, which includes more than 200,000 plaintiffs, is seeking more than 5 billion pounds ($7.7 billion Cdn) in compensation from BHP.
Goodhead says the "huge volume of toxic sludge" has affected over a million people across multiple Brazilian states to this day.
"Everybody from artisanal fishermen to business owners to traditional communities, the whole section of society in Brazil has been devastated as a result of the disaster," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.
"There have been different concentrations of mercury and arsenic and chromium and other metals within the water which have led to biological devastation."
Following the mine collapse, BHP, Vale and Samarco established the Renova Foundation to compensate and support people affected by the disaster.
In an emailed statement, BHP told The Current it has applied to appeal the U.K. court's decision, which it called "unnecessary as it duplicates matters already covered by the existing and ongoing work under the supervision of the Brazilian Courts and legal proceedings in Brazil."
BHP said since the mine's collapse it has spent "Around 30 billion" Brazilian reals ($7.1 billion Cdn) in repairs and compensation, with about 376,000 people receiving "indemnity payments."
Jonathan Knowles saw the devastation of the mine disaster first-hand. The British national was living in Brazil at the time and is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
When the flooding began, he said, the Doce River resembled "a muddy soup" and "tidal waves of sludge and debris." By the second day, he saw "just a mat of dead fish" blanketing the area along the river.
Knowles, who had recently started a business selling valves to help people save money on their water bill, suddenly found himself in dire straits. With no clean water, no one had any use for his product.
"Within three months, I was penniless," he said.
"It split up the family. I lost ... a roof over my head, my house, and my total possessions came down to a suitcase."
Knowles, however, says he has received no compensation of any kind, whether from the Renova Foundation or anyone else.
Goodhead said the foundation has created some useful support initiatives, but added that the sheer number of people involved in his lawsuit should be evidence enough that its efforts have not been adequate.
"It's a scheme, effectively, where a company is able to actually limit their liability through using the foundation as a liability shield and effectively putting caps on the amount which are going to be contributed rather than actually going through the court proceedings," he explained.
Mining companies should be held accountable abroad: advocate
Catherine Coumans says it's no surprise that a program set up by the companies responsible for the disaster in the first place has been found lacking.
"These companies are often headquartered in very wealthy countries, such as Canada, but they operate in much poorer developing countries and there they cause serious environmental human rights abuses," said Coumans, the research coordinator and Asia Pacific Programme Coordinator for the NGO Mining Watch Canada.
"But it's almost impossible for people in those countries ... to hold these powerful multinationals to account."
No Canadian company is associated with the Mariana, Brazil, collapse.
Coumans says Canadian mining companies are often known around the world for the harm they've caused, and that more needs to be done to ensure accountability around the world.
She pointed to a private member's bill introduced by NDP MP Peter Julian, Bill C-262, that asserts "the corporate responsibility to prevent, address and remedy" harmful actions conducted by Canadian companies abroad.
It was introduced last November and completed its first reading in March.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.
- A previous version of this story stated that BHP did not send a statement despite requests from The Current. A statement was in fact sent before the story was published, and has now been included.Jul 25, 2022 12:38 PM ET