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Mining Executives Face Homicide Charges in Brazil Dam Disaster

Mining Executives Face Homicide Charges in Brazil Dam Disaster

RIO DE JANEIRO — Prosecutors in Brazil on Tuesday charged the former president of the Brazil-based mining giant Vale and 15 other people with homicide, faulting them for negligence in a dam disaster that killed at least 259 people a year ago.

Those charged include Vale’s former chief executive, Fabio Schvartsman, and other senior officials employed by Vale and by a German firm hired to assess the stability of its dams. They were also charged with environmental crimes, as were the companies.

The announcement came days before the first anniversary of one of the deadliest mining disasters in years.

The dam in Brumadinho, in the state of Minas Gerais, was built to hold waste from an iron ore mine. When it burst on Jan. 25, 2019, the company cafeteria and other facilities were buried in a torrent of mud.

On Tuesday, one of the state prosecutors who brought the charges, William Garcia Pinto Coelho, said Vale had executives systematically hid evidence of safety concerns and retaliated against auditing firms that flagged problems.

And the German firm Tüv Süd, Mr. Pinto Coelho said, was compensated for knowingly presenting Vale with misleading reports about the stability of its dams.

Prosecutors said they had found evidence that Vale officials knew Brumadinho’s dam was at risk since at least November 2017. It was on an internal list of 10 dams at risk of bursting, they learned.

“The goal of these omissions, ultimately, was to avoid any negative impacts to Vale’s reputation that could affect its market value,” Mr. Pinto Coelho said.

Tüv Süd and Vale, he said, knowingly took risks “that could cause environmental damage, eventual homicide and deaths.”

Federal prosecutors are still conducting their own investigation, which could yield more charges.

Mr. Pinto Coelho said that the Brumadinho dam had not been the only one at risk, and that throughout the investigation, prosecutors advocated for action when they learned of other Vale sites deemed unstable.

Pierpaolo Bottini, Mr. Schvartsman’s lawyer, said there was no evidence that the former Vale chief had been made aware of concerns about the dam in Brumadinho. “These charges are unfair and incompatible with Fabio’s track record,” Mr. Bottini said.

The company said in a statement that it was “perplexed” by the charges announced Tuesday. “Vale trusts that the causes of the rupture will be completely determined and reaffirms its commitment to continue cooperating with the authorities,” the company said.

In a statement of its own, Tüv Süd said it was cooperating with the authorities in Brazil and Germany. The company said the causes of the dam bursting “have not been conclusively ascertained.”

Vale has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in cleanup, reconstruction and compensation efforts in Brumadinho. But Alessandra Cristina de Oliveira, a Brumadinho councilwoman, said Tuesday that the city was still reeling.

While recovery and reconstruction efforts have brought money and jobs to the town, many residents are fearful the bonanza will run out soon. The mining site, which was a pillar of the local economy, is not expected to reopen.

“We don’t have anything that guarantees our survival after this,” Ms. de Oliveira said. “My fear is that we end up with a city that is both sick and bankrupt.”

Soon after the dam burst, law enforcement officials said they had found clear evidence that Vale and its partners put profit over safety at mining sites. A similar dam burst at another Vale mine in Minas Gerais in 2015, killing 19 people and causing widespread environmental damage.

As evidence of negligence mounted, Vale’s board last March suspended Mr. Schvartsman and other top executives.

In November, a Congressional committee investigating the Brumadinho disaster recommended the indictment of 22 company officials. Around the same time, the National Mining Agency announced that it had concluded that Vale hid serious problems it was aware of in mandatory government reports.

Letícia Casado contributed reporting from Brasília.

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