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BHP Billiton ‘knew of risks’ prior to the 2015 Brazilian dam disaster yet was ‘woefully negligent’

Published by , Assistant Editor
Global Mining Review,

According to the lawsuit, BHP Billiton ‘knew of the risks’ surrounding the deteriorating condition of a Brazilian dam in the years prior to its deadly collapse in 2015, yet were ‘woefully negligent’ in its duty to prevent the catastrophe.

A group action lawsuit, brought on behalf of 235 000 Brazilian individuals and organisations, including municipal governments, utility companies, indigenous tribes and the Catholic Church, has today (7 May 2019) been served on the Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate.

The Fundão dam near Belo Horizonte in eastern Brazil collapsed on 5 November 2015, causing a mudslide that killed 19 people, destroyed the nearby villages of Bento Rodrigues, Paracatu de Baixo and Gesteira and devastated the Rio Doce river basin, the second largest river system in Brazil.


The failure of the dam, which held 55 million m3 of iron ore tailings, an industrial by-product of the company’s mining operations, caused the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history.


The group action suit describes in detail a series of failures and errors of judgment over several years leading to the disaster, including how BHP Billiton:

  • Were aware of escalating safety concerns surrounding the dam’s integrity and were knowingly responsible for decision-making around its operation and maintenance;
  • Failed to heed and act upon repeated warnings from independent experts and dam safety advisers regarding recommended safety improvements;
  • Consistently increased industrial output of iron ore, leading to heightening water levels in the dam, despite repeated safety concerns;
  • Put pursuit of profit over human and environmental risk, despite the company’s stated claims to hold the principles of ‘safety’ and ‘sustainability’ at the heart of the BHP charter of values.

The suit has been served on BHP, one of two parent companies of dam operator Samarco Mineiração S.A. (Samarco). The suit has been brought by SPG Law, a US-UK law firm acting on behalf of the 235 000 Brazilian claimants.


Tom Goodhead, Partner at SPG Law, commented: “BHP knew of the risks surrounding the Fundão dam. The repeated warnings and recommendations of dam safety experts were acted upon too slowly, or sidestepped entirely.


“Driven by concern for declining revenues amidst the falling market price of iron ore, the company took risks, increased production and turned a blind eye to dangers that ultimately claimed lives and destroyed communities.


“BHP was woefully negligent in its duty of care and the damages sought are entirely commensurate with the devastation the company has wrought upon the people of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo and Brazil.”


The full claim document will be publicly available from the High Court in Liverpool (UK) from approximately 15:00 on Tuesday 7 May.

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