(CN) — Saying they can't get justice in Brazil, more than 200,000 Brazilians whose lives and businesses were upended by a massive dam failure in 2015 are asking a British court to hear their $6.3 billion case against BHP, one of the world's largest mining companies.
For the past week, a court in Manchester in northern England has held hearings over whether people damaged by the catastrophic failure of the mine dam in southeastern Brazil can seek compensation in the United Kingdom against mining giant BHP, which has headquarters in London and Australia.
The case involves what is often called Brazil's worst environmental disaster.
On Nov. 5, 2015, the Fundão tailings dam in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais collapsed, releasing an estimated 2.1 billion cubic feet of iron ore and water. The avalanche of mud killed 19 people and inundated towns, villages, farmlands and rivers in its path, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean 430 miles away. The villages of Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu de Baixo were destroyed.
The toxic flood washed out bridges, roads, houses, churches, factories and businesses. Five years later, farmers and fishermen in the region say waterways, most importantly the Rio Doce, and land remain polluted by the toxic tailings.
Among those suffering from the catastrophe are the Krenak indigenous people who live along the Rio Doce. They say the damage to their protected reservation near Resplendor has been catastrophic and left them unable to swim, bathe or fish in the river. They also say they cannot drink the river's water and that many of the plants they rely on have disappeared.
The plaintiffs say they are turning to the British court system because they cannot expect to get compensation in Brazil's courts. They allege Brazil's courts are slow and unreliable.
PGMBM, a multinational law firm handling the plaintiffs' case, said this is the largest group litigation in the history of British courts.
The law firm argues that BHP is “ultimately responsible” for the dam failure because it ignored expert warnings that piling up more iron ore tailings might cause the dam to collapse. BHP also allegedly failed to act when cracks in the dam appeared. BHP faces liability because it was a co-owner of the dam and mine.
Besides nearly 202,000 individuals, 531 businesses, 25 municipalities, 16 faith-based institutions, five utility companies and the Krenak indigenous tribe are seeking compensation.
After the dam collapse, BHP set up a recovery program and plaintiffs sought damages in Brazilian courts. But the plaintiffs argue neither has been up to the task.
Tom Goodhead, a lead lawyer with PGMBM, said BHP has been “insulated from its consequences within the Brazilian legal system.”
“This case is seeking to deliver some modicum of justice for the immediate and longer term impact of this disaster on the thousands and thousands of people who have been affected, the livelihoods destroyed, and the environmental havoc that has been wrought,” Goodhead said in a statement.
BHP is asking the judge to throw the case out of British courts, arguing the matter belongs in Brazilian courts. The company says legal proceedings in Britain would be “pointless, wasteful and duplicative” of proceedings taking place in Brazil.
At a hearing last week, Charles Gibson, a lawyer for BHP, argued that Brazil's justice system is capable of rendering a just verdict.
“One has to be quite cautious before casting stones at other systems of justice,” he said, according to Reuters.
BHP also argues that about 100,000 claimants have received compensation from Renova Foundation, the recovery program set up in 2016 to help those damaged by the dam collapse. Under this program, the company says three villages have been rebuilt, Krenak families have received monthly financial aid and alternative drinking supplies have been furnished.
Brazilian federal prosecutors also are seeking $29 billion in damages from BHP and its Brazilian partner, mining giant Vale.
BHP did not reply to a message seeking comment from Courthouse News on Wednesday.
This initial round of hearings about whether the case can be tried in British courts ends on Friday. A ruling is expected in September.
It's not the first time that a British company has been sued in Britain for alleged environmental damage in a foreign country. Last year, the U.K. Supreme Court allowed a case related to pollution claims in Zambia against Vedanta Resources, a London-based metals and mining company, to proceed in Britain. The Supreme Court said the case could be tried in the U.K. because the plaintiffs were too poor to litigate their case in Zambia and because they were unlikely to be represented in Zambia by a legal team with adequate expertise.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @cainburdeau
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