Brazil shuts operations at mine that triggered mudslide, engulfing village

A chicken walks amid the debris in Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 9, 2015.
A chicken walks amid the debris in Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 9, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
A fireman rescuing a dog that was trapped in the mudslide in Bento Rodrigues on Nov 9.
A fireman rescuing a dog that was trapped in the mudslide in Bento Rodrigues on Nov 9.PHOTO: AFP
Rescue workers searching for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.
Rescue workers searching for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
Rescue workers searching for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.
Rescue workers searching for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS
A rescue worker looking at the damage during a search for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.
A rescue worker looking at the damage during a search for victims at Bento Rodrigues district after a dam burst, in Mariana, Brazil, on Nov 8, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - The Brazilian authorities said on Monday (Nov 9) they had halted operations at an iron ore mine where the collapse of a waste reservoir triggered a deadly mudslide, the latest blow to co-owners BHP Billiton and Vale.

At least four people were killed and around 20 are missing after a deluge of mud and mining sludge burst through retaining walls at the Samarco mine last Thursday and buried most of the nearby village of Bento Rodrigues.

The mine, a joint venture between Australia's BHP Billiton and Brazil's Vale, "can only resume operations once the investigation is finished and measures are taken to repair the damage", said a spokesman for the environment office in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais.

State officials gave the order to close the mine last Friday due to the seriousness of the incident and the need to investigate the risks for the population and the environment, the spokesman told AFP.

"Samarco is only authorised to carry out emergency actions aimed at minimising the impact of the collapse and preventing new damages," the environment office said in a statement.

The two mining giants have seen their stock prices plunge since the disaster.

Shares in BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining firm, fell 5 per cent on Monday in London to a new seven-year low.

Shares in Vale racked up heavy losses Friday and were down one per cent on Monday in Sao Paulo.

Despite its focus on safety, BHP recorded five work-related deaths in the year to June 30, 2015, which chief executive Andrew Mackenzie described in the annual report on Sept 23 as "disappointing".

BHP said it recorded no fatalities in financial year 2014, and had an injury frequency performance of 4.2 injuries per million hours worked.

Deustche Bank analysts warned the disaster could shut down Samarco for a decade, with cleanup costs of more than US$1 billion (S$1.42 billion).

"Words cannot describe the impact of this tragedy on the employees and contractors of Samarco, their families and the community," said BHP chairman Jac Nasser.

"Our thoughts are with the people of Samarco, the affected community and with the people of Brazil."

BHP Billiton's chief executive Andrew Mackenzie announced he would fly to Brazil this week "to understand first-hand the human, environmental and operational impacts of the incident".

Samarco, the 10th-largest exporter in Brazil, is 50 per cent owned by both companies.

It has announced plans to hire external investigators to determine what caused the disaster.

The mine did not have sirens to warn residents in case of such a collapse.

The disaster is a public relations nightmare for BHP Billiton and Vale.

The authorities said they have identified two bodies pulled from the sludge and are still working to identify two others. Rescue workers have warned the death toll is likely to rise as the search operation continues.

More than 600 people were left homeless by the mudslide, a spokesman for the state government said.

A small group of survivors protested on Monday against Samarco outside the city hall in Mariana, the nearby town where the evacuees from Bento Rodrigues have been taken.

Brazilian media reports said the nearly 60 million cu m of ochre sludge, which has flowed into local rivers, could contaminate the water supplies of more than half a million people.

Initial water tests in the Rio Doce river basin, which supplies a dozen cities, show abnormally high levels of opacity and electric conductivity, officials said. The results of metal toxicity tests are expected on Tuesday.

State prosecutors recommended that Samarco pay baseline monthly damages equivalent to the minimum wage (US$207 a month) to each family that lost its home.

They also urged the company to set a timetable for resettling victims in new homes.

"We are trying to resolve all this without going to court," said Mariana prosecutor Guilherme de Sa Meneghin.

But "if Samarco doesn't comply with our recommendation, we're going to let the justice system rule on fulfilling these measures", he told AFP.