Mining giant BHP Billiton has been accused of being “woefully negligent” before a deadly dam collapse in Brazil, as it gears up for a multibillion-pound legal fight over the incident.
In a class action served on Tuesday representing more than 200,000 claimants, lawyers from SPG alleged that the company “knew of the risks” at the site.
At 5 billion US dollars (£3.8 billion), it is the largest claim in UK legal history.
Tom Goodhead, partner at SPG, said: “The repeated warnings and recommendations of dam safety experts were acted upon too slowly, or sidestepped entirely.
“Driven by concern for declining revenues amidst the falling market price of iron ore, the company took risks, increased production and turned a blind eye to dangers that ultimately claimed lives and destroyed communities.”
In 2015, a dam collapsed at BHP’s Samarco iron ore mine in Minas Gerais state, south-eastern Brazil, killing 19 people and displacing 700.
A torrent of mud unleashed by the burst also wiped out a small village, Bento Rodrigues, and contaminated the Atlantic Ocean.
The deadly stain of red mud, water and debris flowed downstream into the Doce River, where it devastated wildlife and compromised drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.
The stain flowed through neighbouring Espirito Santo state before it reached the Atlantic.
The group lawsuit, brought on behalf of 235,000 Brazilian individuals and organisations, including municipal governments, utility companies, indigenous tribes and the Catholic Church, was served on the Anglo-Australian miner on Tuesday.
It details alleged failings by BHP, saying the firm was aware of escalating safety concerns surrounding the dam’s integrity but continued to increase industrial output of iron ore, leading to heightened water levels.
Mr Goodhead added: “BHP was woefully negligent in its duty of care and the damages sought are entirely commensurate with the devastation the company has wrought upon the people of Minas Gerais, Espirito Santo and Brazil.”
BHP has already paid millions into compensation and remediation programmes.
It is also facing legal action in Australia on behalf of shareholders.