(Adds residents being evacuated to higher ground, comment from civil defense)
BRASILIA, Nov 5 (Reuters) - A dam holding back waste water from an iron ore mine burst on Thursday in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and local media reported as many as 16 people may have been killed.
The mining company Samarco, a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale and Australia’s BHP, said in a statement it had not yet determined why the dam burst or the extent of the disaster at its Germano mine near the town of Mariana.
Vale directed media questions to Samarco, while BHP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The city council told Globo News it was evacuating about 600 people to higher ground from the village of Banto which was flooded as a result of the accident.
The dam was holding so-called tailings, a mining waste product of metal filings, water and occasionally chemicals. It was located near a river, fueling fears of potential water contamination.
Video footage on Globo’s website showed houses of a village destroyed by muddy waters that surged down valleys in the hilly region of the iron ore mine.
The G1 news service of the Globo Media group reported that between 15 and 16 people died and 45 others were missing, citing the local union. The civil defense arm for Mariana could not confirm casualty numbers but said numbers reported in Brazilian media were speculative.
The disaster comes as both Vale and BHP are battling a collapse in iron ore prices and a wider slump in the industry.
The Germano mine is a 50-50 joint venture between the world’s largest iron miner and the largest mining company. Iron ore is transported down a slurry pipe to Espirito Santo, where it is turned into pellets. Samarco produces around 30 million tonnes per year, according to its website.
Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Chris Reese and Tom Brown