Workers Accused in Dam Collapse -- WSJ

Date : 09/21/2019 @ 7:03AM
Source : Dow Jones News
Stock : Cia Vale Rio Doce (VALE3)
Quote : 53.8  0.0 (0.00%) @ 11:00AM

Workers Accused in Dam Collapse -- WSJ

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By Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2019).

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Brazilian police announced criminal charges against Vale SA and its German safety auditor, TÜV SÜD, over the miner's dam collapse in January, the world's deadliest in more than half a century.

In the first charges following the tragedy, police formally accused seven individuals from Vale and six employees from TÜV SÜD, for covering up structural dangers at the dam during safety audits last year, only months before it ruptured, killing 270 people.

Vale said in an email that it won't comment until after studying Friday's police report, adding that the company and its employees will continue to contribute to the investigation and will respond to the accusations in due time.

A spokeswoman for TÜV SÜD declined to comment on the charges.

The accused from Vale were all technical workers, managers and engineers; none of the company's directors were named.

However, the chief police investigator on the case, Luiz Augusto Pessoa Nogueira, said Friday that authorities are still investigating the role of directors in other crimes related to the disaster, lambasting the miner for not cordoning off the dam and evacuating workers once problems in its structure became apparent.

"I don't know if the environmental tragedy could have been avoided, but the human tragedy could have been," said Mr. Nogueira, who is leading the federal police's probe into the collapse, which occurred in Brazil's southeastern town of Brumadinho. "Vale showed no interest in closing down the dam," he said during a press conference Friday.

While Vale was under pressure from shareholders to prove its dams were all stable, the miner's employees also earned bonuses if they could prove the safety of the structures, Mr. Nogueira said.

Brazilian authorities investigating the case have told The Wall Street Journal they are preparing further charges, including possibly for homicide and manslaughter, against individuals at both Vale and TÜV SÜD, as well as more legal action against the companies. Both Vale and TÜV SÜD were formally accused in the charges Friday, as well as 13 employees.

Under Brazilian law, police can only formally accuse suspects, while it is up to prosecutors to file the charges before a judge.

Mr. Nogueira said the TÜV SÜD employees accused in the charges contributed to safety audits in June and September last year that attested to the dam's stability, even though they harbored concerns about the structure's safety.

"TÜV SÜD wanted to keep working for Vale," said Mr. Nogueira, alleging that inspectors at the German group declared the dam to be safe for fear of losing contracts with Vale, a major client.

In the days after the disaster in late January, the Journal reported that TÜV SÜD worked for Vale both as a consultant and an independent safety evaluator of the dam, raising questions among experts over potential conflict of interest. The Journal subsequently reported that employees at Vale and TÜV SÜD knew for months of dangerous conditions at the dam but that TÜV SÜD employees certified it as safe anyway, worried about losing business with Vale.

Mr. Nogueira said the individuals named Friday stand accused of the crimes of false representation. Police allege that the certificates produced by TÜV SÜD to attest to the stability of the dam were issued fraudulently at the behest of Vale employees.

In police testimony reviewed by the Journal, Makoto Namba, a senior engineering inspector at TÜV SÜD who signed off on the dam's September audit, told police he felt pressured by a Vale manager, Alexandre Campanha, to do so. Mr. Namba and Mr. Campanha were among those formally accused Friday.

Augusto de Arruda Botelho, an attorney for TÜV SÜD's Mr. Namba and two other employees at the German group named in the charges, said his clients denied wrongdoing. "The report presented by the federal police failed to interpret basic concepts about dam engineering and arrived, therefore, at an incorrect conclusion," he said.

Mr. Campanha has denied wrongdoing, saying he didn't put pressure Mr. Namba to approve the dam. A lawyer for Mr. Campanha couldn't be reached for comment.

Police also accused Chris-Peter Meier, a director in Germany for TÜV SÜD, in the charges, as they said his colleagues in Brazil consulted him about the dam's certification. Mr. Meier couldn't be reached for comment.

The crime of false representation can carry a prison sentence of up to six years in Brazil when related to some cases of environmental damage. As police believe the crime was committed three times, the accused could face up to about 18 years in jail if the charges are filed and accepted by a judge, said Mr. Nogueira.

Friday's announcement comes ahead of next week's eight-month anniversary of the disaster, the most deadly mine-waste dam collapse anywhere in the world since 1966. On Jan. 25, a sunny Friday, the dam holding mining waste in Brumadinho suddenly collapsed, sending a tsunami of mud down the valley at speeds of up to 50 miles an hour, obliterating the mine's canteen as workers sat down to lunch. Most of the 270 people who died were Vale's own workers or contractors.

The dam's collapse came just over three years after a similar dam, jointly owned by Vale and BHP Group Ltd., about 80 miles away also collapsed, killing 19 people in what authorities said was one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazilian history.

In May, an investigation by the Journal found that several of Vale's own workers at the mine in Brumadinho warned their bosses the dam was about to collapse. Supervisors brushed aside those concerns, in some cases citing fears about extra expenditures.

--Alistair MacDonald in London and Jeffrey T. Lewis in São Paulo contributed to this article.

Write to Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com and Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 21, 2019 02:48 ET (06:48 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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