A Brazilian judge has ordered mining giant Vale S.A. to pay for all damage caused by a ruptured dam that unleashed a torrent of mine waste and killed at least 247 people in January.
The disaster in the small city of Brumadinho was one of Brazil's worst-ever industrial accidents. Twenty-three people are still missing from the rupture that engulfed many of the company's workers and nearby residents in the muddy waste.
Judge Elton Pupo Nogueira ruled that Vale should be held responsible for the cost of repairing all damage caused by the incident. The judge did not give a dollar figure for how much the company should pay, saying the tragedy's consequences cannot be quantified only by technical-scientific criteria, according to a statement on the court's website.
The amount "will not be limited to deaths due to the event, but also effects on the local and regional environment, in addition to economic activity in the affected regions," Nogueira said in the statement.
Shortly after the collapse, judges in Brazil froze nearly $3 billion of Vale's assets for relief and repair measures. Nogueira said that money will remain blocked.
Vale said in a statement that it "reaffirms its total commitment to the prompt and fair reparation of damages caused to the families, to the infrastructure of communities and to the environment." The judge did not grant a request that the company suspend its activities. He noted that the company has not denied responsibility for the damage.
One of the largest mining companies, Vale is headquartered in Brazil and produces iron ore and nickel. The company has said that the dam passed two safety inspections in the year before it burst.
This is not the first dam disaster involving Vale. As NPR has reported, it co-owned another dam in the area that ruptured in 2015 and killed 19 people.
In addition to financial penalties, current and former Vale executives may face criminal prosecution. Earlier this month, Reuters reported, a Brazilian Senate committee recommended that the company's chief financial officer and former chief executive be indicted for murder.
The recommendation is not binding, but could prove influential to prosecutors.
"Vale's tragedy is a series of tragedies," the committee's report states, according to Reuters. "The immeasurable human loss; the countless dead animals; the environment destroyed for years, perhaps decades; the dreams and heritage of a lifetime buried by the carelessness, neglect, greed, usury, irresponsibility, indifference and sloppiness of a company that used to be a role model."
Local police also have been investigating whether senior company officials "were aware of structure weaknesses in the barrier before it ruptured," according to The Wall Street Journal.