UK court blocks lawsuit against BHP over Brazil dam burst

Samarco’s dam burst killed 19 people, wiped out several towns and polluted rivers. (Image by Romerito Pontes | Flickr Commons.)

The High Court of Manchester, northwestern England, blocked on Monday a £5 billion ($6.6bn) lawsuit against BHP over a devastating dam collapse at an iron ore mine in Brazil in 2015, which killed 19 people and became the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.

The suit, filed last year by 235,000 Brazilian people and groups including indigenous tribes and the Catholic Church, claims the world’s no. 1 miner was “woefully negligent” in the run-up to the Samarco dam failure.  

The claimants were seeking compensation for physical and psychological injury, property damage, moving costs, loss of earnings, loss of water supply and lost fishing income.

Proceedings for what is the largest group claim in English legal history were halted last April 2020 due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

When they resumed in July, parties presented arguments for whether the case could be brought in English court.

BHP said at the time the group action was “pointless” and “wasteful” as it said it “duplicated” Brazilian proceedings. It also noted that victims were already receiving compensation through the Renova Foundation, a redress scheme set up in 2016 by its Brazilian division, Samarco and Vale.

The mining giant said it had already spent more than £1.3 billion on monthly financial aid to about 130 indigenous Krenak families and projects, including rebuilding three villages and establishing alternative water supply systems.

It also alleged almost 100,000 of the claimants had received payments from Renova and only 58 of those bringing the claim in England were not part of rival class actions in Brazil.

Subsidiaries liability unclear

Monday’s ruling, which qualified the lawsuit as an “abuse of the process of the court”, comes about 18 months after the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruled that nearly 2,000 Zambian villagers could sue India’s Vedanta (NYSE: VEDL) in England for alleged pollution in the African country.

Brazilian federal and state prosecutors asked a court in October to re-open another multi-billion-dollar civil action lawsuit against BHP and Vale for damages caused by the incident at their Samarco joint venture’s Mariana facilities.

That claim is for damages of 155 billion reais ($29 billion).

(With files from Reuters)

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