CUBATAO, Brazil, Aug. 6 — At the base of tropical mountains as green and dense as broccoli lies Cubatao, a city many Brazilians still know as the place where babies were born without brains 20 years ago. Cubatao’s chimneys still belch smoke and flames into the air 24 hours a day and a stale industrial odor lingers. But anyone familiar with Brazil’s chemical capital will swear it has come a long way from the darkest, dirtiest days when it was known as the “Valley of Death” and the most polluted place on Earth.
It has come so far, in fact, that government officials and industrialists now hold Cubatao up as a model not only of environmental recovery but also of sustainable industry. They showcase the fishermen reeling in mullet from the river and the lush vegetation filled with animals on the slopes of the Serra do Mar mountain chain, just 40 miles from Sao Paulo.
But for environmental groups and scientists, Cubatao is still a danger zone where contaminated air, soil and water are literally eating away at a resigned population.
“I am anguished that each year that passes there are more people, more children exposed to this harm,” said Roberto Kishinami, executive director of Greenpeace in Brazil.
Researchers are finding “excessive rates” of cancer, although they stress that more studies are needed to establish the link with the industrial pollutants.
Bladder cancer is six times more prevalent in Cubatao and neighboring cities such as Santos than in outlying areas far from the industrial concentration. Cancers of the nervous system, including the brain, are four times more likely and lung, throat, mouth and pancreatic cancer are twice as high.
Back in the 1950s, government planners saw Cubatao as an ideal setting for the nation’s nascent industry. The Santos port, Latin America’s largest, would receive the raw materials and ship out the finished products, while the burgeoning industrial market of Sao Paulo was just up the hill.
No one thought then about the effect of Cubatao’s majestic mountains. Today it is easy to see how they block dispersion of industrial emissions and put a lid of pollution on the region.
Oil monopoly Petrobras built a gigantic refinery and chemical and fertilizer concerns sprouted up nearby. State-owned steelmaker Cosipa came in the 1960s with a mill that employed more than 15,000 in its heyday.
“We had a very strong concentration of industry without any environmental control whatsoever,” said Orlando Cassettari, director of pollution control at Sao Paulo state’s environmental agency Cetesb.
TRAGEDIES OVER TWO DECADES
Two alarming developments in the late 1970s and early 1980s marked the end of that era. First were the births of a score of babies without brains, although researchers were never able to prove that the birth defects were caused by pollution. Then there were the mudslides down the mountains, which looked like they had been chemically defoliated.
In 1983, the state government demanded industries start implementing pollution control. Many were quick to come around under the threat of hefty fines, but others were notoriously lax, including Petrobras and Cosipa, the two biggest polluters in the area. And the government cut them slack.
“Brazil’s environmental law is very strict, but if we applied it with full force we would have had to close many industries,” Cassettari said.
Authorities say they now have almost every source of contamination in Cubatao under control and they need just three more years to achieve “acceptable levels” of pollution.
OLD ECONOMY ALIVE
The last time Cubatao shut down industries due to high levels of pollution was in 1994. The number of complaints residents file at Cetesb has also dropped sharply since then.
“In the last 10 to 15 years our quality of life has done nothing but get better,” said resident Jorge Felix as he fished for mullet, unbothered by the river’s stench and oily film.
Cubatao’s center registers 48 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air, just within the World Health Organization recommendation of 50 micrograms and less than half of the 100 micrograms present in 1984.
In the Villa Parisi district, near where Cosipa and the fertilizer plants sit, particles have also dropped by half but are two times higher than the WHO recommended level at 98 micrograms. Residents were removed from the district a decade ago, although thousands still go to work there every day.
Further improvements in the quality of air will have to come from increasingly cleaner production facilities rather than a reduction in industry, which is not in the cards. “Most industries have no intention of leaving here,” said Maria da Penha de Oliveira, Cetesb’s manager for the Santos region. “In fact, we have requests for new installations.”
From her office on the banks of the Cubatao River, she scans the smokestacks and blows the whistle on factories spewing something other than colorless emissions. “We can’t rest on our laurels. The minute we let our guard down, we have problems.”
PARTICLES FROM STEEL PLANT
The biggest problem is still Cosipa, Brazil’s third largest steel producer, Oliveira says. Under private ownership since 1993, it has invested $200 million in environmental controls and received international quality certification for its efforts.
Respiratory ailments are half what they were in 1984 but the air at the sprawling complex where 5,800 people work is still thick with particles from a 10-story coke furnace, the last big environmental problem the company says it needs to tackle.
Some might be willing to put up with the pollution in exchange for a high-paying industry job, but few of Cubatao’s 120,000 residents actually work in the city’s factories.
Most of the skilled workers choose to live in nearby Santos, Sao Vicente or Guaruja, making Cubatao a city of immigrants from the poor Northeast, drawn to the area by a dream of steady work that never materialized in their slums.
“They only get the most rotten part of the industrial process,” Kishinami of Greenpeace said.
But just like the heavy haze that hovers over the fertilizer plants, the slum residents are hard to disperse. “No one leaves here,” said Jorge Donaire, a 37-year-old former Cosipa worker. “Where could we possibly go?”