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German firm in court over Brazil dam collapse

September 28, 2021

German safety inspection firm TÜV Süd had inspected the dam for mining company Vale, shortly before it collapsed in January 2019. Plaintiffs in Munich are seeking hundreds of millions of euros in damages.

In this January 2019 file photo, an aerial view shows a rail bridge taken down by a mudslide after the collapse of a dam in Brumadinho
The 2019 dam collapse released millions of tons of toxic sludge that engulfed buildings, vehicles and roadsImage: Getty Images/M. Pimentel

A class action lawsuit against the German safety inspection company TÜV Süd began on Tuesday, with plaintiffs seeking damages for the disastrous collapse of a dam in Brazil two years ago.

Some 270 people died in January 25, 2019, when a dam in the Brazilian city of Brumadinho burst, releasing tons of toxic sludge that swallowed homes and roads downstream.

The Munich-based TÜV Süd, which stands for Technischer Überwachungsverein, or Technical Inspection Association, was in charge of running inspections for Brazilian mining company Vale, which operated the Corrego de Feijao mine that collapsed. 

Shortly before the disaster, the Brazilian subsidiary of TÜV Süd had inspected the dam's retention basins and concluded that they were safe.

Firm denies responsibility

But families of those affected and community officials are demanding that TÜV and others be held responsible for what happened in Brumadinho.

In February 2020, a Brazilian state judge allowed a criminal case to move forward against TÜV Süd and some 16 Vale company employees, including Vale's former CEO Fabio Schvartsman. 

Both parties stand accused of willful homicide, for intentionally covering up problems with the dam's structural integrity over a number of years.

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit in Munich say they represent some 1,200 victims, who are seeking hundreds of millions of euros in compensation.

The plaintiffs include the municipality of Brumadinho and the relatives of a Vale engineer who died when the dam collapsed.

A spokeswoman for the plaintiffs said they did not expect the court to reach a decision, as a number of technical questions need to be assessed, which could lead to a complicated legal process.

For its part, TÜV Süd is fighting the charges. The inspection agency denies bearing any legal responsibility for the dam bursting, arguing that it was Vale who did not comply with the recommendations it made in its safety report. 

Vale pays billions in compensation

Vale has agreed to pay almost €6 billion ($7 billion) in compensation to the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, where the disaster occurred. The funds were set to help mitigate the social and environmental consequences of the dam disaster.

Some €1.4 billion were earmarked for the people directly affected by the dam collapse and to benefit the community of Brumadinho.

But a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Munich cases said the compensation in Brazil was "a sham," saying that no funds have been or are planned to be handed out to the local population.

jcg/rs (AFP, dpa)