Brazil prosecutors open criminal probe into Samarco CEO

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian federal prosecutors said on Wednesday they opened an investigation into alleged environmental crimes by Roberto Carvalho, chief executive of iron-ore mining company Samarco Mineração SA, over a deadly damburst last year.

According to a statement released by prosecutors, Samarco, a 50-50 joint venture between Brazil’s Vale SA and Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd, has failed to fully implement emergency precautionary measures ordered by Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama in the wake of the October 2015 tailings dam burst.

In what has been billed the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history, the flood of iron-rich mud killed 19 people, wiped out several towns and polluted hundreds of kilometers (miles) of rivers in Brazil’s Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo states.

The opening of an investigation is the latest set back for plans to re-open Samarco, restore lost jobs in the region and help it raise cash for an estimated 20 billion real ($6.13 million) clean-up plan.

Brazilian prosecutors have attacked the plan, agreed to with the federal government in March, as too small and lacking specifics. Samarco’s mine is not expected to reopen before mid 2017.

“The omissive acts of the chief executive could be categorized as environmental crimes,” the prosecutors said in the statement.

Samarco officials did not immediately respond to a request for comments from the company and Carvalho.

According to Ibama and the prosecutors, Samarco has failed to properly contain 24.8 million cubic meters (875.8 million cubic feet) of mine tailings -- enough to fill 10,000 Olympic swimming pools -- that remain spread over the disaster area and have not been flushed away by rains or floods.

The amount represents more than three quarters of the total amount of muddy mine tailings that spilled out of the broken dam.

The containment structures built by Samarco are insufficient, the prosecutors said and will allow 2.8 million cubic meters (98.9 million cubic feet) of muddy tailings to be swept into rivers downstream by as early as March 2017.

Of the 11 measures ordered on Samarco by Ibama, four were partially implemented and the rest were totally ignored, prosecutors said.

They added that Vale and BHP are considered co-responsible for the disaster as owners of the company.

($1 = 3.2628 Brazilian reais)

Reporting by Marta Nogueira; Additional reporting and writing by Jeb Blount; Editing by Sandra Maler