RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Samarco Mineração SA will not receive Brazilian government authorization to resume iron ore mining operations at the site of a dam burst that killed 19 people until leaks of tailings are stopped, environmental protection officials said on Wednesday.
Samarco, which is jointly owned by mining companies Vale SA and BHP Billiton Plc, hopes to resume operations at the start of the first quarter to be able to pay for a 20 billion real (US$5.53 billion) damages settlement.
The restart depends on authorization from the Minas Gerais state environmental agency Semad, which told Reuters that the miner needs to find a solution for the leaks from dikes built after the dam burst. Tailings are mineral waste and water sludge left over from mining operations and stored in ponds.
Samarco has taken first steps toward reopening the mine, applying for permission to use old mining pits to store tailings. A permit, however, will only be issued once the leaks are stopped, Semad deputy director Geraldo Abreu said.
Abreu said he expected Samarco to find a solution to the leaks in the six months that it will take to issue a permit.
Federal environmental protection agency Ibama said the leaking was allowing water with above-permitted turbidity levels to flow down to the Rio Doce river.
Ibama coordinator for emergencies, Fernanda Pirillo, said half of the 24 million cubic meters of tailings that remained in the dam after it burst have leaked into the provisional dikes, which are leaking the turbid water into the environment.
Samarco representatives said provisional measures taken by the miner comply with environmental norms and a final solution was being sought.
Samarco Chief Executive Roberto Carvalho said last month that iron ore pellet production for the initial two to three years would likely be at a reduced 19 million tonnes per year as the company develops a long-term plan to store the mining waste known as tailings. Before the dam disaster, Samarco was producing about 30 million tonnes per year.
Reporting by Marta Nogueira; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Toni Reinhold