BHP says independent analysis shows the mud from its Brazil mine disaster isn't toxic

Protestors perform outside Vale headquarters in Rio de Janeiro against the Samarco mining operation. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

BHP Billiton has released its own report into the toxicity of the mountain of mud from the failed waste dam at Brazil’s Samarco mine, which killed at least 13 people and left 600 homeless.

The company says analysis by SGS Geosol, a company specialising in environmental geochemistry, has confirmed the tailings are composed of material “not hazardous to human health” based on Brazilian standards, contradicting UN-sponsored research released last week.

When the incident occurred three weeks ago, BHP managing director Andrew Mackenzie, a geoscientist, described as “relatively inert”, so the company was stung to respond once again following the UN report, which sent the share price tumbling.

At the close, BHP shares were down 3.6% to $18.09. BHP’s share price has dropped to GFC levels since the mine disaster earlier this month.

BHP says tests by the Brazilian Geological Service on samples taken at four points in the Rio Doce river system indicate concentrations of metals do not significantly differ from the results of five years ago.

“As a result of the high volume of sand and clay tailings material that moved through the river system, a large number of fish died due to reduced oxygen uptake,” BHP said in an update on the disaster. “Assessment of these impacts is ongoing.”

The tailings plume has reached the Atlantic Ocean and is dispersing, BHP says.

Two United Nations independent experts say 50 million tonnes of iron ore waste from the failed tailings dam contains heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.

According to the report to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850km.

BHP also confirmed today that the Brazilian Federal Government and some state governments intend to start legal proceedings against Samarco, Vale and BHP for clean-up costs and damages.

The action will demand that the companies establish a fund of Brazilian Real 20 billion ($A7.2 billion) for environmental recovery and compensation. BHP says it hasn’t received formal notice of the action.

BHP and its 50/50 partner Vale are establishing a voluntary, non-profit fund to support the recovery of the Rio Doce.

Monitoring of the remaining dam structures at Samarco continues. Interim work to repair the damage to the dams and to reinforce parts of the structure has started.

“Samarco and local authorities continue to assess and monitor water quality in the Rio Doce river system,” according to the BHP statement. “Where water supplies have been affected, alternative water supplies are being provided by Samarco, working with local authorities.”

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