RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian police announced charges against employees of two multinational companies Friday over their role in a mining-dam breach in January that killed hundreds of people and was one of the worst environmental disasters in Brazil’s history.

Police accused employees of the Vale mining conglomerate and the German safety-certification company TUV SUD of fraudulently attesting to the safety of the dam months before it gave way near the town of Brumadinho in the state of Minas Gerais, killing at least 249 people.

The employees were charged with criminal misrepresentation and could face up to 18 years in prison.

TUV SUD declined to comment on the charges. Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, also declined to comment other than saying in an email that it would “evaluate in detail” the police reports and continue to cooperate with the investigation.

AD
AD

The allegations, against seven Vale officials and six TUV SUD workers, were the first criminal charges brought against the companies over the cataclysmic dam rupture, marking the next phase in a slew of criminal and civil investigations into what caused it and who is to blame.

In July, a judge ordered Vale to pay all damages resulting from the disaster, without citing a ­specific amount. Days later, Vale agreed to pay more than $100 million to the affected families.

On Jan. 25, the dam in ­Brumadinho, at the heart of Brazil’s mining-industry operations, spilled nearly 2 million cubic meters of toxic mine waste. The mud crashed into the mine’s administrative headquarters, where hundreds of employees were having lunch, then deluged a small community nearby. For weeks afterward, the dead were dredged from the mud. Dozens of people are still missing.

AD
AD

The tragedy again revealed the vulnerability and extraordinary danger associated with that type of dam — known as a tailings dam — particularly when situated uphill from a population center. In 2015, another of the dams burst in nearby Mariana, also in Minas Gerais, killing 19 people.

The collapse in Brumadinho led to reviews of numerous tailings dams found to be similarly vulnerable, endangering thousands of Brazilians living below them. One town, Barao de Cocais in Minas Gerais, was told in May that a nearby dam was at imminent risk of rupturing — leaving inhabitants to live in the shadow of looming disaster.

“The climate of uncertainty remains enormous,” said Marden Chaves, the town spokesman. “In that sense, nothing has changed.”

AD

This time, in Brumadinho, authorities allege that it wasn’t just the inherent danger of the dams that was to blame for the collapse.

AD

At a news conference Friday in Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, police said officials at Vale and TUV SUD not only knew of the danger facing the dam but tried to conceal it.

“We have testimony that proves that they had knowledge,” said Luiz Augusto Pessoa Nogueira, an official with the Brazilian federal police. “We have a conversation from an email in which they seem to feel that the dam project would not pass” safety inspections. “Even knowing that, they kept saying that the dam was stable.”

Nogueira said the safety-inspection company’s desire to maintain a good business relationship with Vale may have compromised its ability to give it bad news.

AD

“TUV SUD didn’t want to create problems with Vale, because they wanted to keep working with Vale in other projects,” he said.

Local news media reported that police are considering additional charges against company employees, including homicide and environmental damage.

“The investigation continues to punish those responsible for the crimes against life and the environment,” police said in a statement.

Luiz Fernando Toledo in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

AD
AD