May 16, 2016 / 9:52 PM / 2 years ago

New Brazil minister says will not commit to restart Samarco mine

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 16 (Reuters) - Brazil’s Environment Minister, José Sarney Filho said on Monday he will not allow Samarco Mineração SA to reopen its iron ore mine without assurances that the causes and damages of a deadly tailings dam collapse were fixed.

Sarney Filho, appointed last week, made the comments during an official visit to Mariana, Brazil, the township most affected by the November tragedy that is considered the worst environmental disaster in the country’s history.

After flying over the region devastated by a tsunami of muddy mine waste, he refused to sign a statement during an event from the local government that would commit the government to allowing the mine to reopen.

The mine, a 50-50 joint venture between Brazil’s Vale SA and Australia’s BHP Billiton Ltd , would still need to secure the necessary permits to resume operations.

“I don’t yet feel comfortable participating in any act that agrees with facilitating the return of (mining) activity,” he said after meeting with Mariana’s mayor.

Samarco is one of the largest employers in the region and the cornerstone of Mariana’s economy. Samarco, Vale, BHP and the Brazilian government, including the environment ministry, signed a 20-billion-real ($5.71 billion) accord in March to clean up the disaster area and compensate victims.

At the time, government and company officials said the mine could reopen by the end of the year. The mine would likely produce at a rate of 19 million tonnes a year, 63 percent of its pre-disaster level.

Sarney Filho, who was previously environment minister from 1999-2002 under former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is also the son of former Brazilian president José Sarney. ($1 = 3.50 reais) (Reporting by Marta Nogueira; Additional reporting by Jeb Blount; Writing by Jeb Blount; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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