In a blatant case of posturing ahead of inevitable compensation negotiations, lawyers —acting on behalf of Brazil’s public prosecutors — are said to have lodged claims totaling $44 billion ($155 billion Brazilian Reais) against mining companies Vale SA and BHP Billiton for the collapse of a dam at their Samarco joint venture last year.
Needless to say, shares in both companies promptly tanked about 6% even though the prosecutor’s office has a habit of claiming big and settling small. As a measure of just how absurd the figure is, the Financial Times states the 155 billion Reais claim is equivalent to twice Vale’s market value and, if enforced, would bankrupt the company leaving no one to clear up the environmental mess. You can bet the funds would disappear into government coffers, not for the clean-up.
Demands as Negotiation Starting Points
By comparison, the FT reports UBS analysts and others who pointed to the 2011 oil spill off the coast of Rio de Janeiro — that prompted prosecutors to claim $11 billion in damages from Chevron and its drilling partner Transocean — was eventually settled for only $42 million.
Indeed, if Brazil was to genuinely pursue the claim through to its logical settlement it would end up shooting itself in the foot. Samarco is a 50/50 joint venture and so would be the settlement costs but, where Vale is a wholly Brazilian company with 154,000 employees in the country, BHP is listed in London and Sydney with comparatively little else at risk in Brazil.
BHP has already written down its Brazilian asset from $1.2 billion to zero, meaning if it walked away it would lose nothing more, according to Reuters.
Samarco Disaster vs. BP Oil Spill
There is no disputing the dam burst was a disaster and there is widespread belief it could have been avoided. The torrent not only killed 19 people but also obliterated Bento Rodrigues, a town of 800, inundated another larger town with mud, and polluted almost 1,000 km (600 miles) of the Rio Doce.
According to Reuters, the disaster killed fish, contaminated water used for agriculture, and left at least 250,000 people without running water for weeks. It was always going to be expensive but BHP and Vale had already agreed to pay a government-estimated $5.6 billion (R20 billion Reais) over 15 years to cover and repair damages and the firms had thought that was an end to the claims process.
Comparisons have been made with claims against BP over their gulf oil spill naturally enough, but in reality there is little to link them. U.S. prosecutors had BP over a metaphorical barrel with its extensive investments in the U.S. market and could take them to the cleaners with impunity. Arguably, they would not have done the same to a U.S. company.
Brazil would lose more in the long run doing the same to Vale than they would in ensuring the firm survives and, effectively, clears up the mess. So, while I don’t knowingly hold shares in either company I would be more likely to sell them over anxiety about the firm’s medium-term future in an oversupplied market than the damage overzealous prosecutors are likely to do their profits.