Several casualties feared after tailings dam bursts in Brazil

UPDATED 8:30 a.m. PST

There are conflicting reports on the number of dead and missing after Samarco’s tailings dam breached

Up to 16 people are reported dead and another 45 are missing according to local reports. The Civil Defense department says there are casualties but have not released an official number.

The tailings dam failed at 4:20 p.m. local time on Thursday. Samarco, 50% owned by BHP Billiton and 50% owned by Vale, is an open-pit iron ore mine.

Water and mud ran seven km into Bento Rodrigues, a town of over 600 residents.Video and photos show widespread damage with knocked over buildings and vehicles on top of buildings. Emergência Fire 193 uploaded images of the devastation to YouTube.

In a statement the company said that it is ” is mobilizing every effort to prioritize care for people and mitigate damage to the environment” (translated from Portuguese by Google Translate).

The company says emergency crews are in place providing assistance. It is unable to confirm casualties or the extent of the damage.

Reason for the failure has still not been investigated. However, there were earthquakes in the region (link to Portuguese news post) that were observed by the University of Brasilia. The first at 2:02 p.m. local time with with a magnitude of 2.5 degrees on the Richter Scale and then a second shortly after with a 2.7 magnitude. There were five quakes in total. The area is seismically active.

Experts warn there is no established link between the earthquakes and the rupture of the dam.

Andrew Mackenzie, the CEO of BHP Billiton, expressed his condolences:

First and foremost, our thoughts are with the Samarco employees, contractors, their families and the local community of Bento Rodrigues that has been devastated by the flooding,” said Mackenzie.

We are deeply concerned for their welfare.

We still don’t know the full extent of the situation, but we are working closely with Samarco, and with Vale, to better understand the circumstances.

I have spoken to the CEO of Vale, Murilo Ferreira, and Jimmy Wilson, our President of Iron Ore has been speaking with his equivalent in Vale , Peter Poppinga, as well as the CEO of Samarco, Ricardo Vescovi De Aragao.

A local prosecutor has already filed a civil investigation.

Vale and BHP Billiton are both down markedly on a generally bad day for commodities after the strong jobs report.

Vale (NYSE:VALE) lost 6% today to $4.12 and BHP Billiton dropped 4.47% to $30.99 as of 9:11 a.m. PST.

Screen grab from Emergência Fire 193.

Screen grab from Emergência Fire 193.

Screen grab from Emergência Fire 193.

Screen grab from Emergência Fire 193.

A worker filmed water rushing out of the collapsed dam.

Complexo Alegria/Samarco is an open pit, iron ore mine located in Brazil. Map is from IntelligenceMine.