Mariana tragedy victims suffer setback in UK courts

. Nov 11, 2020
An avalanche of toxic sludge buried entire communities in Mariana. Photo: José Cruz/ABr An avalanche of toxic sludge buried entire communities in Mariana. Photo: José Cruz/ABr

As The Brazilian Report showed last week, five years have passed since the Fundão dam collapsed in the south-eastern Brazilian town of Mariana, causing 19 deaths and untold environmental damage. Yet, only two-thirds of families who qualify for compensation have received any redress as of August 2020.

These neglected households were dealt another disappointment on Monday, when the High Court of Manchester, in England, dropped a GBP 5 billion (USD 6.6 billion) lawsuit against Anglo-Australian mining multinational BHP Billiton, one of the controllers of the Fundão tailings dam.

</p> <p>Representing over 200,000 people and institutions — including 22 municipal governments, 600 companies, the Catholic Church, and indigenous people — the lawsuit was filed in July by law firm <a href=";utm_medium=release&amp;utm_campaign=mariana&amp;utm_content=jurisdictiondecision">PGMBM</a>, made up of British, Brazilian, and American attorneys. They requested GBP 5 billion from BHP Billiton as compensation for the Mariana disaster.</p> <h2>The tragedy of Mariana</h2> <p>The Fundão dam was used to store iron ore tailings, the toxic residue from the mining operations of <a href="">Samarco Mineração S/A</a>, co-owned by a Brazilian subsidiary of BHP and domestic <a href="">mining giant Vale</a>. The legal representatives of the Mariana tragedy&#8217;s victims say that BHP is ultimately responsible for the dam collapse, as, by way of Samarco, it repeatedly increased its production of iron ore and the storage of toxic waste, despite severe warnings that this would compromise the dam&#8217;s safety.&nbsp;</p> <p>PGMBM affirms that it will appeal the High Court decision immediately, as the judge in question &#8220;incorrectly interpreted&#8221; English legal precedents. According to Pedro Martins, a PGMBM partner, &#8220;these are binding precedents, which a judge cannot disobey, therefore, a part of our strategy is to present the proper way to apply these precedents to the appeals court.&#8221;</p> <p>Mr. Martins believes that it will take between six and nine months for the appeal to be decided and, if they win this battle, the compensation process will continue in the English courts. Only then will the amounts of reparations be discussed and decided upon. </p> <p>He and the other legal representatives of the Mariana disaster victims argue that the compensation received in Brazil has been completely inadequate, with BHP &#8220;being widely protected from the legal consequences until now,&#8221; giving them the right to sue the Anglo-Australian company in the English courts. Mr. Martins said that &#8220;in the unlikely case that the appeal is denied,&#8221; the law firm will file compensation lawsuits in other countries where BHP operates.</p> <h2><strong>Broken promises</strong></h2> <p>In July, when the High Court of Manchester began evaluating the request, BHP stated that the lawsuit in England &#8220;duplicated issues that are or have been the object of pre-existing legal proceedings in Brazil.&#8221; It claims that the Renova Foundation — an organization funded by BHP and Vale to pay compensation and carry out reparation measures — has already paid out BRL 2.5 billion (USD 460 million) in compensation and financial aid to the affected population.</p> <p>However, a report submitted by the Federal Prosecution Service last week showed that Renova Foundation has delayed the implementation of the 42 programs foreseen in agreements signed to minimize the environmental devastation of the dam collapse. Until August 2020, only 34 percent of the affected families received compensation, and there have been delays in delivering new homes to those left destitute by the tragedy.</p> <p><a href="">Another study, authored by UN special rapporteur Baskut Tuncak</a> and published in September, says that those responsible for the Mariana catastrophe had not effectively supported or compensated the victims, highlighting the incapacity of the Renova Foundation. </p> <p>&#8220;Unfortunately, the true purpose of the Renova Foundation appears to limit the liability of BHP and Vale, rather than provide any semblance of an effective remedy. Institutional shortcomings are well-documented in literature and litigation. Today, none of the 42 projects are on track,&#8221; he wrote.</p> <h2><strong>Battle of the titans</strong></h2> <p>BHP Billiton is the largest mining corporation in the world, with almost 50,000 employees, 80,000 contractors, and worldwide operations in the extraction of iron ore, coal, petroleum, copper, natural gas, nickel, and uranium. It was established in 2001, with the merger of Australian firm Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited (BHP) and Billiton PLC, from the United Kingdom. Its annual revenue sits at USD 30 billion. In 2000, it joined forces with Vale to control local mining firm Samarco, which was responsible for the Fundão dam in Mariana.</p> <p>On the other side of the courtroom, PGMBM is a law firm that has made its name with lawsuits against multinational giants. Previously known as SPG Law, it has taken on global proportions, expanding from the cities of Liverpool and London to the rest of Europe, the U.S., and Brazil. </p> <p>The group has successfully won compensations in civil actions totaling over USD 100 million from pharmaceutical firms, USD 1.2 billion from the United States Department of Agriculture, USD 660 million from British Airways, and won a case against Volkswagen for violating European Union greenhouse gas emission laws.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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