March 5, 2019 / 9:39 PM / a year ago

CORRECTED-UPDATE 2-Brazil minister calls Vale 'important' even as prosecutors probe miner

(Corrects date in paragraph 6 to Friday instead of this week)

By Nichola Saminather

TORONTO, March 5 (Reuters) - Brazil’s mining minister on Tuesday defended iron ore miner Vale SA as vital to the country’s economy, even after prosecutors accused the company of pressuring auditors to suppress evidence that its Brumadinho dam was unstable, months before the dam collapsed in January, killing hundreds.

Minister of Mines and Energy Bento Albuquerque said Vale executives are likely to learn from the disaster, which killed more than 300 and sparked an outcry for tighter mining regulations.

The January disaster was the second deadly burst in less than four years in Brazil at a Vale-controlled tailings dam, a type of dam that stores the muddy detritus of the mining process.

Albuquerque told Reuters the world’s largest iron ore miner plays an important role in Brazil’s economic development. The country’s National Mining Agency, the industry’s main regulator, is linked to the ministry.

“The company is very important for Brazil, for the economy of many states in Brazil, and we consider them to have an important role in our development,” Albuquerque said on the sidelines of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada mining conference in Toronto.

On Friday, Brazilian prosecutors alleged that Vale fired an inspection firm months before the disaster because it refused to certify one of its dams as safe. Albuquerque acknowledged the severity of the allegations.

“If the certification by any means, was adulterated, then they can be accused of collusion, or obstruction,” said Albuquerque, a former admiral in Brazil’s navy who was appointed earlier this year.

Still, Albuquerque’s praise of Vale, despite a storm of criticism over what many called a preventable disaster, indicates how the company’s clout as one of Brazil’s top exporters may prompt some politicians to oppose tougher regulations.

“I think they will learn the lessons and they will succeed in overcoming this situation,” Albuquerque said.

Brazil has banned the type of tailings dam used at the Brumadinho facility, and Vale’s chief executive officer temporarily stepped down last week. The disaster has prompted hand-wringing throughout the global mining industry, with rival CEOs vowing to set stricter standards for tailings dams.

Still, the world is hungry for Vale’s iron ore, a point of pride across Latin America’s largest economy, especially in the pro-development administration of new President Jair Bolsonaro. Vale has more than 100,000 employees in Brazil.

Albuquerque said his ministry has started an inspection of every tailings dam in Brazil and should finish by year end. The ministry expects to finalize changes to the tailings dam certification process by June, he said.

Brazil’s federal government and Vale have always had “good communication,” which should continue under the company’s new leadership, Albuquerque said. It was not yet clear if Vale’s new management will be made permanent.

Shares of Vale trading in New York rose 1.9 percent on Tuesday to $12.66. (Reporting by Nichola Saminather; additional reporting by Christian Plumb in Sao Paulo; writing by Ernest Scheyder; editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)

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