Mining giant BHP's stock plunges after Brazil files US$43b lawsuit for dam disaster

An official standing in front of a sign for mining company BHP Billiton outside the Perth Convention Centre on Nov 19, 2015.
An official standing in front of a sign for mining company BHP Billiton outside the Perth Convention Centre on Nov 19, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP, REUTERS) - Shares in Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton plummeted seven per cent on Wednesday (May 4) after it revealed Brazil has filed a US$43 billion (S$58.12 billion) lawsuit against it and co-owner Vale over the Samarco mine disaster.

BHP said the lawsuit was for "social, environmental and economic compensation" after a waste spill that buried a village and killed at least 17 people last November.

The 359-page lawsuit, which is also against the two states affected by the spill and the federal government, is the result of a six-month investigation led by a task force set up after the disaster, prosecutors said on Tuesday.

The total damages, prosecutors said, were calculated based upon the cost of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the United States. BP's total pre-tax charge for that spill reached US$53.8 billion.

Brazilian prosecutors demanded an initial payment of 7.7 billion (S$2.92 billion) reais.

The civil action is separate from the lawsuit that Samarco, Vale and BHP settled with Brazil's government in March in which the companies would pay an estimated 20 billion reais for damage caused by the spill. Federal and state prosecutors did not form part of that settlement.

The settlement itself was criticized by prosecutors, who said it was insufficient and lacked the legal mechanisms to ensure the companies would fulfill their obligations, making it little more than a "letter of intent."

The roles of the state and federal government were also questioned, with prosecutors accusing the state of Minas Gerais, where the spill occurred, as being guilty of negligence in the permitting and monitoring of the dam.