Six top executives of iron ore miner Samarco, a joint venture between BHP Billiton (ASX:BHP) and Vale (NYSE:VALE), and one contractor have been accused of homicide over the deaths of 19 people who were killed in a dam burst last November.
Brazilian police in the state of Minas Gerais recommended “qualified homicide” charges for the chief executive of Samarco at the time, Ricardo Vescovi, and six others, local newspaper Veja reported (in Portuguese).
In Brazil only prosecutors, and not police, can legally bring criminal charges, but accusations from officials often precede formal charges.
People charged with “qualified homicide” — the Brazilian equivalent of involuntary manslaughter — face between 12 to 30 years in prison.
Police have also accused the seven individuals of endangering public health by polluting the region’s drinking water. They warned they would carry out a further criminal investigation over the next month related to the environmental impact of the mining disaster.
According to Brazilian authorities, the accident was caused by a lack of proper monitoring. This caused the reservoir behind the dam to overfill. They have also said that faulty equipment and a failure in the drainage system played a role.
In an e-mailed joint statement, BHP and Vale said the allegations were “serious” and that they needed to be “fully considered.”
The mining giants also said they were awaiting the findings of an independent external investigation, and “until it is completed, we will not speculate about the cause, or causes, or talk about what may or may not have contributed to the failure of the dam”.
The companies are in negotiations with the Brazilian government to reach a settlement, likely to be around $5 billion.
The deadly dam burst is considered the country’s worst environmental disaster, polluting a major river with thick red sludge, which quickly reached the Atlantic Ocean.