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Perth, Australia, Nov 19 – Greenpeace protesters today disrupted BHP Billiton’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) to demand justice for the thousands of victims of the mining waste spill that destroyed the historic Brazilian town of Mariana in Minas Gerais state. The Germano iron mine, whose tailings (waste) dam failed on November 5th, is operated by Samarco – a joint venture co-owned by Australia-based BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, and Brazil-based Vale S.A, one of the world’s five largest mining companies.

About 40 Greenpeace and GetUp activists held banners reading “BHP: Mud and Profit” and “#justiceforMariana” before holding a media conference outside the AGM. Greenpeace campaigner Dr. Nikola Casule then attended the AGM and questioned the Board about the disaster.   

Nine people are confirmed dead and at least nineteen others are missing; an estimated 500 have been displaced. Enough waste – including toxic metals like arsenic — spilled into the Doce River watershed to fill 25,000 Olympic swimming pools. Since November 5th, the waste has been slowly working its way downstream, contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people and submerging protected forests and habitats. Experts predict that it will take the ecosystem decades to recover.

“BHP and Vale’s mining disaster are ruining the lives of thousands — fishermen, ranchers, city-dwellers and the Krenak Indigenous people,” said Ricardo Baitelo, Climate and Energy campaign leader for Greenpeace Brazil. He continued, “The tragedy will spread over 500 kilometers as the mining sludge makes its way towards the Atlantic coast.”

The Brazilian federal government neither required, nor did Samarco prepare, an adequate disaster response plan nor financial assurance to clean up a spill that experts predict will cost US$1 billion to clean up.

BHP and Vale were warned in 2013  that the Germano mine waste dams could failunder typical rainfall conditions.The expert study by Instituto Pristino was commissioned by the Minas Gerais prosecutor’s office.

“If BHP Billiton knew there were design flaws in the tailing dams, why did operations proceed?” asked Greenpeace campaigner Dr. Nikola Casule. “BHP and Vale must cover the full costs of clean-up and reclamation of the Rio Doce, which is the main hydrographic basin in Southeastern Brazil.”

The Samarco mine waste spill is the third catastrophic tailings dam failure in the last 15 months, following Mount Polley in Canada and Buenavista del Cobre in Mexico, both in 2014. An independent review of the Mount Polley failure published in January 2015 found that the mining waste disposal technique used by Mount Polley (and also by the Germano mine), is inherently dangerous and should no longer be used. In July 2015, a statistical analysis of catastrophic mine waste failures since 1910 by the US Center for Science in Public Participation determined that such failures are increasing in frequency and severity as a result of modern mining techniques, predicting 11 such catastrophes this decade that will cost US$6 billion.

“The Samarco mining waste catastrophe is just the latest in a tragic mining industry trend,” said Earthworks’ mining program director Payal Sampat. She continued, “How many people will have to die, how many rivers will be polluted, how many billions of dollars will we spend trying to recover from these disasters before regulators and investors demand that mining companies finally change their ways?”

“BHP must pay for a thorough and independent investigation of how this happened and pay proper compensation for this environmental crime,” said Dr. Casule. “The company must also take comprehensive action to ensure that all its facilities globally are safe, properly maintained and operated, so they do not pose a threat to the community and the environment”.

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