SAO PAULO – Eight employees of Brazilian mining giant Vale were arrested Friday as part of an investigation into a mine tailings dam collapse last month that killed more than 160 people and left around 150 others missing and presumed dead, judicial officials said.
The arrests occurred in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais at the petition of Minas Gerais’ Attorney General’s Office, which said the operation is aimed at establishing “criminal responsibility for the dam rupture.”
Police detained four Vale managers and four members of technical teams responsible for the safety of the dam that collapsed on Jan. 25 in Brumandinho, a small town in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, that state AG’s office said in a statement.
The detainees are to be held for an initial period of 30 days, the prosecutor’s office said.
It said internal company documents dating back to October 2018 show that Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore producer and exporter, was in possession of data indicating the dam was at risk of collapse.
Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman, however, on Thursday told a congressional committee investigating the tragedy that the information the company had about the dam “did not point to any imminent danger.”
He cited technical studies carried out for Vale by reputable outside firms, saying they had certified the stability of the dam and gave no cause for alarm.
Schvartsman referred to the company as a Brazilian “jewel” that should not be condemned “no matter how great the tragedy,” triggering angry reactions from both ruling-party and opposition lawmakers who demanded a response from Vale for what many describe as a crime rather than an accident.
Vale has yet to determine the cause of the failure that allowed a torrent of muddy mining waste to engulf part of the mining complex, along with vehicles and nearby homes.
Scores of families were left homeless and officials are still working to quantify the damage to the environment.
Authorities continue their search-and-rescue effort in Brumadinho even though the chance of finding survivors is considered “minimal” and some bodies buried under the sea of mud released by the dam may never be located.
The tragedy in Brumadinho occurred just three years after a similar tailings dam collapse at a mine co-owned by Vale and Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton in Mariana, Minas Gerais, left 19 dead and caused an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.