BHP Billiton executives faced dissident shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting in Brisbane on November 17 over its responsibility for the Samarco tailings dam disaster in Brazil last year.
The protesters want Australia’s biggest company to compensate the victims. BHP jointly owns the iron ore mine with Brazilian mining giant, Vale.
The Fundao tailings dam in the state of Minas Gerais burst on November 5 last year, spewing red mud and toxic waste across hundreds of kilometres and engulfing several towns and communities.
About 20 people were killed, including a pregnant woman, when the tailing dam wall burst. About 700 people lost their homes and polluted waste water — which the companies tried to pass off as benign red mud — engulfed the Rio Doce valley.
“The dam break led to the destruction of all forms of life in the region,” Rodrigo de Castro Amedee Peret, spokesperson from the Churches and Mining Network in Latin America, said on October 20, outside BHP’s AGM in London.
“Mud covered everything, resulting in 20 deaths and immeasurable 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.”
A coalition of local communities impacted by Brazil’s dam projects, People Affected by Dams (MAB), is demanding the company remove the mud from the river and construct a new dike. It also wants the companies to involve those affected by the dam bust in a direct way in the clean-up and rehabilitation process as well as granting compensation to all those affected.
Natalie Lowrey from Australia’s Mineral Policy Institute, who attended BHP’s AGM in Brisbane, criticised the companies for “ignoring those most affected”.
“The demands being made by MAB, the social movement of people affected by dams, should be accepted,” she said. “The companies shouldn’t be picking and choosing who gets help.”
Representatives of the communities affected by the dam disaster reiterated the same demands inside the London AGM. They were not happy with the company’s responses.
The Brazilian Prosecutor’s office charged 26 people on October 20 for their alleged role in the disaster, including 21 for qualified homicide.
They included BHP Billiton and Vale executives on the Samarco board, including a minority who have now left.
Richard Harkinson of the London Mining Network condemned BHP for leading the charge for corporations to “learn lessons” without undergoing any regulatory change.
BHP chief Andrew Mackenzie told the Brisbane AGM that he did not know when operations would resume in Samarco. BHP had previously said it would restart this year. The mine normally produces 30 million tonnes of iron ore annually.
In March, BHP and Vale struck a US$2.3 billion rehabilitation agreement with Brazilian government authorities for clean-up costs and damage. But in July, a Brazilian court agreed to reinstate a rival civil claim of US$6.2 billion — nearly three times as much.
Brazil’s federal prosecutors have also filed criminal charges against eight current or former BHP employees in relation to the dam disaster.