The Brazilian Government has fined iron ore producer Samarco $66m following the rupture of a tailings dam at the company’s Germano mining site near the town of Mariana in Minas Gerais.

Located near the Gualaxo do Norte river, water from the Fundao dam contained mining waste products from metal filings, and burst in the region between Ouro Preto and Mariana.

Samarco is jointly owned by Vale and BHP Billiton, and is in the process of investigating the causes of the incident. It has also setup an emergency fund to cover rebuilding costs.

Samarco stated that four people previously unaccounted for have been found, with a further 19 remaining missing. The total death toll is not yet known, with at least 17 people reported to have died from the disaster.

"The total death toll is not yet known."

Local authorities said that 637 people have been evacuated in an emergency response, with temporary accommodation provided.

BHP Billiton stated that after the dam burst, the tailings extended 440km downstream and 11 communities have been affected.

A water monitoring programme has been put in place by Samarco to assess the water quality of the Gualaxo do Norte, Carmo and Doce rivers.

Samarco is working with relevant authorities to manage river water quality, and is continuing to monitor the impacted tailings facilities, including the Germano dam.

Following the incident, Samarco operations were immediately halted and the company’s operating licence has been suspended.

Vale and BHP Billiton have health, safety, environment and geotechnical experts onsite supporting Samarco’s response and carried out discussions with Samarco and authorities with regard to the additional support to be offered.