Is Brazilian Dam Failure an Existential Threat to Mining Giant Vale?

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Brazilian iron-ore mining behemoth Vale S.A. (NYSE: VALE) suffered its second major disaster in just over three years last Friday when a company-owned dam failed, flooding the town of Brumadinho. The death toll is approaching 60, with some 300 people still unaccounted for.

Vale’s American depositary receipts (ADRs) dropped more than 8% Friday and traded down by another 10% in Monday’s premarket session. The company has suspended its $0.51 annual dividend, and Brazilian courts have frozen nearly $3 billion in company funds to be used to pay for cleaning up the mess and compensating victims and survivors. And that’s likely just the beginning of what the company will have to pay.

S&P Global Ratings wasted no time putting the company and its subsidiaries on CreditWatch with negative implications. The agency said:

Vale’s environmental and social liabilities could be substantial, especially considering that such an incident has happened before. (Vale’s [joint venture with BHP Billiton] Samarco’s dam breached in 2015, resulting in a shutdown that remains ongoing and in the default of the subsidiary’s obligations.)

The Samarco mine remains shut down since the tailings (waste) dam failed in November 2015, killing 19 people and causing Brazil’s worst-ever environmental disaster. A court case involving some $41 billion in claims resulting from the Samarco failure remains suspended as the Vale and BHP negotiate a potential settlement. The JV partners spent more than $500 million last year to repair the damage to the environment and aid victims and expect to spend another $3 billion through 2030, according to a report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. All told, the partners reportedly already paid about $7 billion.

Friday’s disaster could scuttle the Samarco negotiations and, according to S&P, cost Vale its license to operate in Minas Gerais, the province where both the Samarco and Brumadinho dam failures occurred. The area’s mines rejuvenated the company’s stock, which had dipped to around $2 in early 2016, to climb to more than $16 late last year. High-grade iron ore mined in Minas Gerais is in heavy demand, particularly from Chinese steelmakers.

Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman, who took over last year, had outlined a strategic acquisition plan amounting to some $10 billion financed from the miner’s free cash flow. That plan almost certainly will have to go on hold until the company has settled the claims from the two disasters.

Vale’s ADRs traded at $12.22 in Monday’s premarket session, down 10.5% from Friday’s closing price of $13.66. The shares closed at $14.86 on Thursday, before the dam failure. The 52-week range is $11.93 to $16.13, and the price target had been $17.08. At Friday’s closing price, Vale had a market cap of $76.7 billion.