By Samantha James

THE collapse of a tailings dam at the Vale-BHP Billiton owned Samarco operation in Brazil has resulted in flooding across more than 600km in one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s mining history.

On November 5 2015, one of the three dams at the Samarco iron ore mine in Minas Gerais failed, affecting the downstream Santarem dam and causing a “significant release” of mine tailings to flood the nearby community of Bento Rodrigues and others downstream, according to BHP.

Four days later BHP advised that although it did not know the causes of the tailings release, it was assisting rescue efforts at the nearby communities where at least one fatality and 13 people had been reported missing.

BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie travelled to Brazil to “understand first-hand the human, environmental and operational impacts of the incident”.

Mr Mackenzie told investors and shareholders at BHP’s annual general meeting on 19 November that BHP was “100 per cent committed to doing everything we can to support Samarco in the response effort and help the community to recover and rebuild”.

“We’re in this for the long term and we’re determined to fully play our part in helping Samarco reconstruct homes, communities and spirit,” he said.

“Right now the immediate focus has to be on the safety of what is still there and continuing rescue attempts and the humanitarian support.

“And progress has been made, I think – strong progress – in all of those areas. [Samarco] continues to provide food, water and emergency supplies to local communities.

“They’re also working with the authorities further downstream to ensure that they can supply clean water to the communities who have been affected by some of the tailings entering the Doce River.”

Samarco signed a preliminary commitment with the Brazilian prosecutors in connection with the state of Minas Gerais to guarantee R$1 billion (around US$260 million) to an emergency fund.

Samarco also signed a commitment with the authorities in Espirito Santo, which was further downstream, to cover measures to prevent and mitigate socioenvironmental impacts in that state.

“As an immediate step, and together with Vale and several local authorities, we have pledged to support Samarco in an emergency fund for rebuilding works, and we want this fund to assist affected families and communities as quickly as possible,” Mr Mackenzie said.

More than 600 people who lost their homes in the accident were placed in hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation, and 300 potential rental properties were being evaluated for more permanent housing.

On 22 November it was reported that toxic mud from the mine spill had claimed more than 12 lives and was expected to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

The waste had travelled more than 500km in two weeks, leaving 280,000 people in more than 200 towns without clean water.

BHP stated it would continue to work with Vale, the local communities and authorities to assess the full impact of the incident.

The Samarco operations have the capacity to produce 30.5 million tonnes per annum of iron ore pellets and to process 32mtpa of iron ore of concentrate.

In the 2015 financial year, BHP’s share of production was 14.5mt of iron ore and the contribution from Samarco was about 3 per cent of the company’s underlying earnings before interest and tax.