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BHP says it will defend Brazil charges

AAP logoAAP 20/10/2016 Prashant Mehra

BHP Billiton's former head of iron ore and two current Perth-based senior executives are among the eight current or former employees of the mining giant to be slapped with criminal charges by Brazilian prosecutors in relation to last year's fatal Samarco dam disaster.

Brazil's federal prosecutors said overnight they have filed criminal charges, including qualified homicide, against 21 people over their roles in the November collapse of a tailings dam at the Samarco iron ore mine, which killed 19 people.

Samarco, joint owners BHP and Brazil's Vale, and Brazilian engineering company VOGBR Recursos Hidricas e Geotechnica - which certified the dam's safety - were also charged with environmental crimes.

"BHP Billiton Brasil rejects outright the charges against the company and the affected individuals," BHP said in a statement on Friday.

"We will defend the charges against the company, and fully support each of the affected individuals in their defence of the charges against them," it added.

The company said it has yet to receive formal notification of these proceedings.

Former employees named in the list include former iron ore chief Jimmy Wilson, who left the company this year after a restructuring; Marcus Randolph, a former head of BHP's ferrous metals and coal division; and Jeffery Zweig, who had been a vice president in its iron ore division.

Of the five current employees, three - Sergio Fernandes, Andre Cardoso and Guilherme Ferreira - are based in Brazil, while Tony Ottaviano and Margaret Beck are currently vice presidents based in Perth.

An investigation by geotechnical specialists in August found the disaster was the result of a series of design and drainage issues over a number of years.

The deadly dam collapse also caused a massive spill of waste material, polluted a major river and displaced several small communities.

The three companies involved in March struck a $US2.3 billion ($A3.0 billion) rehabilitation agreement with government authorities in Brazil to cover clean-up costs and damage from the disaster.

However, the complete financial hit remains uncertain after a Brazilian court in July agreed to reinstate a rival civil claim of $US6.2 billion. BHP and Vale have said they will appeal the decision.

A separate police investigation has also accused Samarco of wilful misconduct, saying the company ignored signs the dam was at risk of collapsing.

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