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BHP Billiton mired in disaster

Shares in BHP Billiton have sunk to a ten-year low after the Brazilian government took the miner to court over the bursting of two of its dams.

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The shares may not be as lucky

Shares in BHP Billiton, the world's largest miner, fell to a ten-year low this week after the Brazilian government filed a $5.2bn lawsuit against the company. Two dams at BHP's Samarco iron-ore mine burst in early November, pouring 50 million cubic metres of mine waste over Brazil's River Doce basin.

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Enough sludge to fill 25,000 Olympic swimming pools has covered an 850km area. Thirteen people have died. The Samarco mine is co-owned by Brazil's Vale, which will share the cost of any damages.

What the commentators said

"With the fallout from the disaster still not fully known, few seem willing to call the bottom for BHP shares," agreed The Sydney Morning Herald. "The market is pondering just how low this grand old ship can go." This incident has tightened the financial screws on BHP, said Rhiannon Hoyle and Alex MacDonald in The Wall Street Journal. It has already been hit by a slump in iron ore, one of its key products.

Prices have fallen by 78% from the 2011 peak. Yet its dividend payout is one of the industry's highest. Citigroup calculates that dwindling operating cash flow of $11.5bn won't cover estimated dividends of $6.5bn and capital expenditure of $8bn. Many analysts have already recommended the group cut its payout. This episode may provide a convenient excuse.

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