Fluoride Action Network

Cleanup for Brazil’s Valley of Death

Source: Chemical Week | August 7th, 1985 | by Jeffrey Ryser, with Paula M. Block
Location: Brazil

Sao Paulo — For years, the area around the Brazilian town of Cubatao — with 23 petrochemical companies operating 111 plants in the industrial heart of the state of Sao Paulo — has been referred to as Vale da Morte, or the “Valley of Death,” because of the high levels of air, water and soil pollution generated there. However, with Brazil’s recent return to civilian rule, following a 21-year-long military regime that emphasized industrial development over environmental concerns, a cleanup of the area is going forward. It’s “only a matter of technology and money,” asserts Fernando de Araujo Guimaraes, general coordinator of Project Cubatao for Companhia de Tecnologia de Saneamento Ambiental (Cetesb), Sao Paulo state’s environmental protection agency, “Certainly the technology is available,” he says. Now, the money, too, is becoming available. Last month the World Bank agreed to lend the Sao Paulo state government $22 million of the $100 million that is projected as the cost of bringing air, water and soil pollution levels at Cubatao closer to accepted U.S. standards. The state, working through Cetesb, plans to parcel out the loan funds to a number of leading Brazilian petrochemical and fertilizer firms for the purchase of pollution-control equipment. The difference in the politica climate was pointed up in June, when the state’s governor, Andre Franco Montoro, restricted expansion of the Cubatao industrial facilities by declaring the surrounding regions, near the Serra do Mar range, off-limits to any new development. An attempt to “balance economic interests and public opinion” would have been unlikely during the prior military regime, suggests one Brazilian political observer.

Thirty days on alert

The need was apparent. Nine days after the governor’s announcement, Cetesb ordered all plant operations in Cubatao to shut down for 24 hours, because of an “emergency” level of 898 micrograms/cubic meter of particulate matter in the air. While it was the first such shutdown in 1985, in the past year the “alert” level — 475 micrograms/cu m — was exceeded on at least 30 days.

In the mid-1950s, the creation of the Cubatao industrial region was envisioned as an economic boon, with little he rest of the area is swampland thought of its potential environmental bane. The site was chosen as Brazil’s first integrated industrial and petrochemical “pole” because of its proximity to Latin America’s biggest harbor at Santos and its leading industrial market at the nearby city of Sao Paulo. Designed to stimulate Brazil’s industrial development, to reduce the country’s huge import bill and to create jobs for its citizens, Cubatao has done its job well. Plants there generate about 16% of Brazil’s total industrial output, which last year led the way to a 4.5% increase in the country’s gross national product and a record $13 billion trade surplus. The town itself, and the conglomeration of shanty towns that sprang up within the industrial park over the years, has an unemployment rate of only 5%.


What no one foresaw about the region were its geographical and topographical limitations. Only 18% of the 61-sq-mi parcel is suitable for housing or industry; much of the rest of the area is swampland that abuts a series of hills and mountains. As development of the region has intensified, workers have been hard put to find suitable living sites. One 6,000-person hamlet, Vila Parisi, is an area of just under 2 sq mi that is shoehorned between a phosphate plant and a steel mill.

A major problem for the region and its 100,000 inhabitants is temperature inversion. Cool air from the mountains traps warm ocean air below, locking in effluents generated by the industrial park that is running near full tilt. Until recently, about 236 tons/day of particulate matter was emitted into the air.

Killer rain

The area’s industrial plants also are considered generators of what some manufacturers say may be the world’s worst acid rain. Additionally, readings taken through 1983 almost routinely showed 10-15 mg of ammonia; 50-80 mg each of iron, fluoride and phosphate; 250-300 mg of sulfate; and an even higher amount of calcium in each liter of rain water studied. The acid rain problem — blamed for the death of the vegetation on the steep cliffs of a nearby mountain — was the primary spur to Governor Montoro’s decision to halt development of the Serra do Mar range. Ultrafertil — the state-owned fertilizer maker and Cubatao’s largest manufact urer — has begun planting hundreds of thousands of shrubs on the mountainside. “There is some wellfounded concern that heavy rains could cause some disastrous mountain slides,” says an aide to the governor.

On any given day, according to Cetesb, as much as 75% of the particulate matter in Cubatao comes from industrial units that account for 59% of Brazil’s total fertilizer output. Ultrafertil, part of state oil monopoly Petrobras’ Petrofertil group, operates a 30,000-metric-tons/year ammonia plant, a 20,000-m.t./year sulfuric acid plant, two nitric acid plants with combined capacity for 130,000 m.t./year, a 40,000-m.t./year nitric acid concentration plant and a 100,000-m.t./year ammonia nitrate solution facility. Privately held fertilizer companies in the industrial park include IAP Industria de Fertilizantes, with a 198,000-m.t./year sulfuric acid facility; Copebras, which has two sulfuric acid plants with combined capacity for 150,000 m.t./year, as well as a carbon black unit; and phosphate producers Manah and Adubos Trevo.

Polluting park

The industrial region also is home to producers of ethylene, polyethylene, benzene, styrene, methanol, formaldehyde, caustic soda, chlorine, carbon tetrachloride and carbon dioxide. Several cement plants, steel plants and manganese ore facilities also are in the area.

With a cleanup plan already in place, state offlcials are confident of success. “This sounds paradoxical,” says Cetesb’s Guimaraes, “but Cubatao’s problem is not hard to solve, at least operationally.” A Cetesb “action plan,” he says, went into effect in July 1984 and is scheduled to run through mid-1987, targeting a descending level of emissions from manufacturers. Cetesb will keep tabs on compliance on a companyby-company basis and prescribe installation of pollution-control equipment.

So far, Cetesb says, 25% of 277 separate sources of air and water pollution has been brought under control during the first year of its efforts, and half of the 46 sources of soil contamination have been eliminated, thanks to the installation of new equipment. Cetesb notes that, notwithstanding the recent 24-hour shutdown, during the past year emission of particulate matter has been reduced 32%; sulfur .dioxide, 17.5%; nitrogen chloride, 50%; fluoride, 11%.

Sao Paulo state’s annual expenditure of $1.2 million to monitor compliance has thus far been sufficient to maintain 12 permanently assigned Cetesb engineers who have come to “know the sources of pollution within the plants as well as you know your own house,” says Guimaraes. In the past year, 86 fines have been levied, totaling a modest $222,000; the maximum fine allowed under Brazilian law is $7,000/day. Noting that 27 of the fines were for delays in installing equipment, Cetesb officials applaud the recent World Bank loan. “If we can get 80% of the reductions called for in the plan,” Guimaraes says, “it will be a success.”

While the World Bank’s loan is designated for use by Brazilian firms, Guimaraes isn’t worried about compliance by foreign multinationals. “As a Brazilian, I should be reluctant to say this, but the multinationals — specifically the American firms — are clean as a result of their access to the best technology.”

A case in point is Union Carbide’s Brazilian subsidiary, Union Carbide do Brasil. Company President Paulo Figueiredo notes that Carbide do Brasil spent $2 million during the past two years on pollution control in Cubatao. “We use companywide standards that are higher than those found locally,” says Figueiredo.

Still, even the multinationals see a number of big problems in Cubatao waiting to be addressed. The Cetesb plan is “reasonable and workable,” says George F. Clegg, president of Monsanto’s Brazilian subsidiary, Industrias Monsanto. However, he feels that “in the end the plan begs the major question, What to do with the people” of places like Vila Parisi. Echoes Nelson Nefussi, the former director of pollution control at Cetesb and now a private consultant in Sao Paulo: “Places like Vila Parisi are so close that even if the best technology controls 99% of the emissions, the remaining 1% will affect people within several hundred meters of a plant. We need to control the pollution and move those people.”

Accident prone

Indeed, concern runs high about the impact of industrial accidents. In the past two years, Cetesb has recorded eight accidents in Cubatao, ranging in severity from a benzene truck overturning to a gasoline fire that killed at least 100 people in Vila Soco in February 1984. In January of this year, a heavy rainfall eroded the earth around an Ultrafertil ammonia pipeline, causing it to snap. The entire population of Vila Parisi was evacuated from the vicinity. Says Clegg: “Those people should not have been there in the first place. Relocating them is [the responsibility] of the government.”

The government, for its part, appears to be preparing to shoulder a portion of that burden. It’s motivated, Guimaraes says, by the notoriety that the Valley of Death has generated. On July 29, Governor Montoro made an official visit to Cubatao to begin discussions of his plan for a phased relocation of residents from the potentially most dangerous areas. However, such efforts are bound to be costly and will require the participation of the cash-strapped federal government. At the present time, there is no such participation. “Cubatao requires both a state and federal effort to deal with both national industry and large expenditures,” observes H. Jeffrey Leonard, senior associate at the Conservation Foundation (Washington, D. C.), a nonprofit research group.

While “Cetesb is a top-notch technical group, [it has] little experience tackling such a political task,” Leonard says. Still, utilizing public awareness to bring about a federal government’s involvement in environmental restoration is not without precedent, he concedes. What’s happening in Cubatao may yet mirror the role state agencies in the U.S. took 15 years ago when they helped bring about the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.