Brazil's Vale to invest $400m to reduce need for tailings dams

Brazil's Vale SA, the world's largest iron ore miner, will invest some 1.5 billion reais ($400 million) starting in 2020 to reduce its reliance on tailings dams, it said late on Tuesday, after one dam collapsed last month, likely killing more than 300 people.

The dam at the Feijao do Corrego mine burst on Jan. 25 in the town of Brumadinho, in what is possibly Brazil's most deadly mining disaster. Rescuers said Wednesday they had found 150 bodies, and 182 people were still missing.Vale has come under intense public pressure since the Jan. 25 dam burst, with some politicians and prosecutors calling for criminal prosecution and a management shakeup.

Vale said its plan to reduce its reliance on giant dams to store the muddy detritus from mining, known as tailings, would boost the portion of the leftover material that is dried rather than stored wet to 70 percent by 2023.

The company said it would spend about $70 million on safety and maintenance at existing tailings dams in 2019, representing a 180-percent jump from 2015. That year, a Vale joint venture was responsible for another deadly dam spill that killed 19 people and polluted a major river.

A Vale spokeswoman said both the 2019 investment in dam management and the plan to produce more dry tailings had already been budgeted before the Brumadinho disaster but had not been made public.

In December, Vale agreed to pay $500 million for New Steel, a company that owns patents in 56 countries for a dry processing method known as Fines Dry Magnetic Separation.

In 2009, one Vale executive identified concerns about the tailings dams and discussed the possibility of making building material from tailings, including bricks, in a bid to trim the vast amounts of wet tailings, Reuters reported last week. It was not clear whether the company followed any of his recommendations at the time.

Vale has come under intense public pressure since the Jan. 25 dam burst, with some politicians and prosecutors calling for criminal prosecution and a management shakeup.

A court-ordered halt to production at several of its dams on Monday froze production at its largest mine in Brazil's mining heartland of Minas Gerais, responsible for nearly 9 percent of the company's output.

That led Vale to declare a force majeure on some of its iron ore contracts on Tuesday.

($1 = 3.6917 reais)

(By Ana Mano and Christian Plumb; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Bernadette Baum)

Click here for complete coverage of the dam burst at Vale's Córrego do Feijão mine