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On January 25th the Brazilian Federal Court ordered mining company Samarco, along with its parent companies, Vale and BHP, to pay $9.7B in compensation for “moral damages” caused by the 2015 failure of their tailings dam in the town of Mariana. 

The Mariana tailings dam failure was called the worst ecological disaster Brazil had ever seen. On November 3, 2015, a 40 million cubic meter avalanche of mine waste killed 19 people and contaminated 668 km of rivers and watersheds, before finally reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The waste spread across 39 municipalities, displaced 500 families and ultimately affected 3 million people living in the contaminated watersheds. The widespread pollution has caused serious health problems across the region. 

This is an important step towards justice for the communities suffering from Vale and BHP’s dangerous mining practices. However, there is still more to be done to provide fair and equitable compensation for all the victims of the Mariana tailings dam failure, and to ensure these types of catastrophes never happen again.

Leaders from the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) called the decision a “victory for the people” but pointed out that it was long overdue and only a fraction of the amount that should have been awarded. 

The judge in the case said the money from the mining companies would be put into a fund administered by the government, to be used for projects and initiatives for areas impacted by the failure. 

However, there is a long track record of mismanagement for funds intended to compensate victims of the Mariana disaster. The Renova Foundation, which has administered a similar fund since 2016, has come under fire for a series of allegations including tax fraud and interference with the justice system. Additionally, it took the foundation almost four years to resettle 240 families whose houses were destroyed by the avalanche of tailings, and community members have lodged complaints about the process as well as the final results. Its failures and the outsized influence of the mining companies were so drastic that the UN Special Rapporteur on Hazardous Substances and Waste recommended, “reforming the governance structure of the Renova Foundation to replace all influence of Vale, BHP and Samarco with independent experts free of conflicts.”

In the UK, BHP and Vale are also facing a class-action lawsuit with over 720,000 claimants demanding over £36bn, with a trial scheduled for October. If successful, the compensation from this suit would go directly to impacted families. 

The verdict from the Brazilian courts came on the fifth anniversary of another catastrophic tailings dam failure at a Vale mine in Brumadinho, Brazil. The dam at the Córrego do Feijão mine collapsed releasing 9.7 million cubic meters of waste. Another tidal wave of mud covered the mine’s cafeteria, parts of the town of Brumadinho and killed 272 people.

It is worth bearing in mind that these tragedies were completely preventable. Safer tailings management practices exist, and civil society has been calling for significant changes to business as usual for a long time.  In 2022, 163 human rights and environmental organizations, Tribal Governments, impacted communities and technical experts endorsed Safety First: Guidelines for Responsible Mine Tailings Management. These guidelines provide concrete steps for reigning in risky technology, guaranteeing respect for impacted communities, and holding mining companies accountable. Hopefully this ruling will serve as a long-overdue wakeup call for these mining companies to clean up their act.Their reputations cannot afford to ignore safety any longer.