The government of Brazil said on Wednesday that it may fine mining giants BHP Billiton Ltd and Vale SA for the "environmental catastrophe" caused by ruptured dams at an iron ore mine jointly owned by the companies in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais last Thursday.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said authorities are very concerned about the rising death toll, which so far is at 15. Though official reports say at least 45 people are still missing.
“If federal fines are applicable, we will apply them,” Teixeira told reporters. “There will be punishment, and under Brazilian law the environment has to be repaired.” Said Teixeira.
Officials warned that the mud from the dams has spread to other nearby towns, causing flooding there as well. The contaminated mud is filled with mine wastes and has also poured into a river in the area, polluting the water supply of several cities.
The Germano mine, where the disaster occurred, is operated by Samarco, a joint venture between the Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton and the Brazilian company Vale.
Executives from both companies took responsibility for the disaster and said they would create a joint fund for the recovery costs.
However, this has been not enough to more than 500 people who remain displaced because of destroyed homes. Rescue workers say the wet contaminated mud, which can act like quicksand, threatens the lives of thousands of people who remain vulnerable to its effects.
Independent experts warned two years ago that the jointly owned Samarco mine was not safe.
A 2013 report conducted by The Instituto Pristino linked to the Federal University of Minas Gerais, warned of structural design flaws and predicted the circumstances that could lead to a dam burst at the Samarco operation.