December 2, 2015 / 12:21 AM / 4 years ago

Vale's Onca Puma ferro-nickel plant operates through court-ordered mine closure

NEW YORK, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Brazilian miner Vale is operating a nickel processing plant at the Onca Puma project, an Amazon mine where a court has ordered mining activities halted, the company’s nonferrous metals chief told Reuters on Tuesday.

While the plant continues to process ore into ferro-nickel, Vale has stopped operations at the open pit mine where it obtains the nickel ores, Jennifer Maki, Vale’s head of base metals, said on the sidelines of the annual “Vale Day” event.

Vale, the world’s largest producer of nickel, has said in recent days it is in full compliance with the order to halt mining operations at the key nickel facility.

The Federal Public Ministry in Brazil’s Para state (MPF) said on Friday the company had not been complying with the order from the Superior Justice Tribunal for more than a month but did not specify in what way.

It was not previously known that the processing plant was still operating, and while ferro-nickel processing is not a mining activity, it is not clear if the continued operation of the plant was what the MPF was referring to in saying Vale was violating the shutdown order.

The court order, from early October, said Vale had violated the mine’s environmental license and polluted the nearby Catete River with heavy metals.

Indigenous groups in the area and the MPF both say birth defects in the Carajas region, where the mine is located, have been linked to toxins in waters near the plant.

The region has long been home to informal wildcat gold mining, an activity that has polluted waterways in Brazil’s Amazon region with toxic chemicals such as mercury.

This summer a federal court ordered Vale to pay 1 million reais ($259,565) to each indigenous village until it establishes a compensation program for the communities.

“We don’t agree with the fine they’ve levied,” Maki said.

Vale’s Para operations face frequent legal and protest actions by native Brazilian groups. Vale has said the company follows the law and does everything it can to help local communities where it operates, and that it should not be held responsible for health issues not caused by its facilities.

The Onca Puma mine has a capacity of 62,870 tonnes and the ferro-nickel processing facility has a capacity of 53,000 tonnes, though it produces less than half of that, according to Thomson Reuters data.

$1 = 3.8526 Brazilian reais Reporting By Luc Cohen; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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