BHP 'should have warned on toxic mine risks'

Protestor outside the Vale headquarters on November in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Mario Tama/ Getty.

A United Nations agency has criticised BHP and its partner Vale for not warning sooner about the toxic risks to communities downstream from the fatal Samarco iron ore mine disaster in Brazil.

BHP’s share price has dropped to GFC levels, below $20 each, and analysts have stripped more than 4% from the profit forecast of the world’s biggest miner.

At the close, BHP shares were at $18.94, a loss of 3.7% on the today.

Two United Nations independent experts say mud from the catastrophic collapse of the tailings dam contains heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.

“This is not the time for defensive posturing,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, John Knox, and the Special Rapporteur human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, Baskut Tuncak.

“It is not acceptable that it has taken three weeks for information about the toxic risks of the mining disaster to surface.

“The steps taken by the Brazilian government, Vale and BHP Billiton to prevent harm were clearly insufficient. The government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm, including exposure to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.”

BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie visited the area and promised a relief fund to help with rebuilding.

He said: “I want to re-emphasise that we are deeply sorry to everyone who has and will suffer from this terrible tragedy. But please let me be very clear: we are 100 per cent committed to doing everything we can do to support Samarco as it works to rebuild the local communities and restore the environment.”

The collapse of the dam killed at least 11, left eight unaccounted for and 600 people homeless.

More than 50 million tonnes of iron ore waste, containing high levels of toxic heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, was released into the river Doce.

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.

The Doce River, one of Brazil’s great water sheds, is now considered by scientists to be dead.

The toxic sludge is slowly working its way downstream towards the Abrolhos National Marine Park where it threatens protected forest and habitat.

The mud has already entered the sea at Regencia beach, a sanctuary for endangered turtles and a rich source of nutrients that the local fishing community relies upon.

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