BHP Group seeks delay to Brazil dam court case

FILE PHOTO: The debris of the municipal school of Bento Rodrigues district, which was covered with mud after a dam owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton Ltd burst, is pictured in Mariana

LONDON (Reuters) -Mining group BHP Group is seeking to delay a potential 36 billion pound ($44 billion) London lawsuit over Brazil's worst environmental disaster as it needs more time to prepare, the company's lawyers said on Wednesday.

The world's biggest miner by market value is being sued by around 720,000 Brazilians over the 2015 collapse of the Fundao dam, owned by the Samarco joint venture it holds with Brazilian iron ore mining company Vale.

BHP's lawyers said the 2024 trial should be delayed to allow Vale to participate and to give BHP more time to go through an "enormous" number of potentially relevant documents.

BHP's lawyer Alexander Hutton argued in court filings that the trial should be adjourned until at least June 2025, saying that pushing ahead with a 2024 trial would be "extremely unfair" to BHP.

A 14-month delay to the scheduled April 2024 start would take the trial well into 2025, a decade after the dam disaster that killed 19 people when mud and toxic mining waste swept into the Doce river, obliterating villages, contaminating water supplies and reaching the Atlantic Ocean more than 650 km (400 miles) away.

BHP denies liability and in December applied to join Vale to the case. Vale has challenged the London High Court's jurisdiction to determine the claim, which will be heard in July.

Simon Salzedo, representing Vale, argued that BHP has no case against Vale and that, if it did, any lawsuit should be brought in Brazil.

BHP said in a statement: "The UK case is unnecessary as it duplicates issues already covered by the ongoing work of the Renova Foundation and/or the subject of ongoing legal proceedings in Brazil."

Reparation and compensation programs implemented by the Renova Foundation funded $6 billion in financial aid by the end of 2022, BHP added.

"When the lengths of the different phases are added up, it is apparent that BHP envisage a trial process that will extend closer to 2030 than to 2025, particularly if there should be appeals," Tom Goodhead of law firm Pogust Goodhead, which represents the claimants, said in a witness statement submitted to the court.

The lawsuit, one of the largest in English legal history, first began in 2018 and was thrown out of court two years later, before the Court of Appeal ruled in July that it could proceed.

BHP has applied to the Supreme Court to end the case without trial following the Court of Appeal's decision last year.

Lawyers representing the claimants said earlier this month that the number of claimants had increased by around 500,000, pushing the potential bill to $44 billion, including interest, if they are successful in the case.

(Reporting by Clara Denina and Sam Tobin, additional reporting by Kirstin Ridley. Editing by Jane Merriman and Mark Potter)