Brazilian mining company to pay out £86m for disaster that killed almost 300 people

Dom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

The Brazilian mining giant Vale has agreed to pay out £86m ($107m) in collective moral damages and £150,000 ($186,000) to each of the close relatives of nearly 300 people killed when a tailings dam collapsed in January at its iron ore mine in Brumadinho.

But while some relatives expressed relief, others said the money would not compensate the loss of loved ones and expressed hope that ongoing criminal investigations would lead to prosecutions.

“You can’t pay for the loss of my son’s life. You can’t pay for the plans and dreams he had for the future,” said Maraliz Fernandes, 60, whose son, the Vale geologist Wanderson da Silva, 38, was killed by the wave of mining waste unleashed when the dam collapsed. “Money will not pay for my peace, which left along with my son.”

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Enio do Amaral, 56, who lost his sister Gislene, 51, in the disaster, will receive a £32,000 one-off payment for victims’ siblings, but said the money would not bring her back.

“This won’t bring happiness for us, for those who lost brothers and sisters,” he said.

The sudden dam collapse on 25 January sent a river of waste pouring across the countryside of Minas Gerais state, killing 248 people. Another 22 are still missing.

Vale has yet to admit any responsibility. The company is the co-owner of the mining firm Samarco, which operated another tailings dam which collapsed in 2015, killing 19 people and causing an environmental catastrophe. A criminal investigation over that disaster has not led to any convictions.

According to the deal signed on Monday evening, Vale will pay £150,000 in moral damages and insurance to partners, parents and children of victims, along with collective moral damages of £86m.

A rescuer searches for victims of the dam collapse near the town of Brumadinho, Brazil, on 28 January 2019 Photograph: Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty Images

“Vale reaffirms its total commitment to the prompt and fair reparation of damages caused to the families, to the infrastructure of communities and to the environment,” the company said in a statement.

Dependents will get a monthly pension until the date the victim would have turned 75. That will bring some financial security for Da Silva’s son, Lucas, 18, but not for Maraliz Fernandes, who has developed a tumour since her son died.

Related: 'That's going to burst': Brazilian dam workers say they warned of disaster

“She depended a lot on him,” said Marconi Machado, 44, Fernandes’s brother. “If Vale had invested this value in security, none of this would have happened.”

Employees at the dam told the Guardian that it suffered a leak six months before the disaster. That leak was among a host of problems cited in a 1 March document from federal and state prosecutors and police which recommended the suspension nine Vale employees, including the CEO, Fábio Schvartsman. A week later, Vale complied.

“The causes of the break are still being investigated. Since the dam broke Vale has presented all the documents and information requested and, as the most interested in investigating the facts, will continue contributing to investigations,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Federal and state prosecutors in Minas Gerais are conducting criminal investigations.

Earlier this month, a committee in the Brazilian senate said that Schvartsman and Vale’s chief financial officer, Luciano Siani Pires, should be charged with murder. The committee also recommended charges against 13 others and said Vale and the dam stability auditor TÜV SÜD should be indicted for environmental damages and corporate responsibility, Reuters reported.

TÜV SÜD certified the dam was stable in 2018 despite concerns about drainage and monitoring. Vale has said it followed all the required safety measures.

Fernando Coelho, 35, lost his father Olavo, 63 in the disaster. The two had lived and worked together, and he is now taking medicine to treat depression. He expressed frustration that nobody has taken responsibility for the catastrophe.

“Those who are responsible – those who should be jailed – they just pay for a lawyer,” he said. “Money rules in Brazil.”