By Marta Nogueira and Stephen Eisenhammer
RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazilian iron ore miner Samarco Mineracao expects to receive a preliminary environmental license in the first quarter, an important step in its effort to resume operations by mid-2017, Chief Executive Officer Roberto Carvalho said in an interview on Tuesday.
This would be the first of three environmental licenses needed by the company, which is jointly owned by Vale SA and BHP Billiton. Samarco's operations were suspended in November 2015 after the collapse of a dam holding mining waste, or tailings, killed 19 people and caused Brazil's worst environmental disaster.
Carvalho said the licenses would allow Samarco to operate its mine in the southeast state of Minas Gerais at 18 million to 19 million tonnes of iron ore annually for two to three years, using an old pit known as Alegria Sul to store tailings.
The company is also looking at a longer-term solution involving two other pits, Alegria Norte and Timbopeba, Carvalho said. Timbopeba belongs to Vale, which runs a neighboring mine.
Although planning is still at an early stage, Carvalho estimated the use of the three pits could store tailings produced over about 10 years.
Vale CEO Murilo Ferreira had said in October that BHP was hesitant about Samarco using his company's infrastructure, but he told investors last week that the two were reaching an agreement. A plan will be presented on Dec. 15, he said.
(Reporting by Marta Nogeuria and Stephen Eisenhammer Editing by W Simon)