Fluoride Action Network

The fight to escape from a black hole

Source: Financial Times | July 10th, 1991 | by Victoria Griffith
Location: Brazil

Victoria Griffith visits a Brazilian city that was shut down because of excessive pollution levels

Just 35 miles south of Sao Paulo the highway to the Brazilian coast descends from a mountain paradise of trees and waterfalls to what looks like a futuristic nightmare – the city of Cubatao.

Metal chimneys belching fire and smoke loom above the the town, which has the dubious honour of being the first and largest industrial park in Brazil. The main areas of activity are cement, steel, fertilizer and oil refineries.

Nearing the city, visitors experience a tickle in the back of their throat, a reminder of the excessive levels of pollution which in the 1970s earned Cubatao its unenviable nickname – the Valley of Death.

Last week, this scene was the backdrop to an ecological nightmare, as pollution levels soared to four times their acceptable level. Faced with a potential disaster, the governor of Sao Paulo declared a state of emergency in the city, and ordered the town’s 23 industries to shut down for 24 hours. A ‘thermal inversion’ was responsible for the crisis, trapping factory emissions and causing pollution levels to soar to 2,000 micrograms of particles per cubic metre. According to Cetesb, the Sao Paulo environmental agency, readings of more than 500 micrograms per cubic metre can cause premature death in infants and the elderly, and put those with respiratory illnesses and heart conditions at risk.

The crisis was short-lived. By Thursday last week pollution levels had been reduced substantially, and the city began to breathe again. Luiz Fleury Filho, governor of Sao Paulo, lifted the state of emergency and the factories recommenced their smoke-belching activities. But the stoppage had already taken its toll.

According to Ciesp, the local industry representative, the work stoppage cost Cubatao’s factories Dollars 3.8m (Pounds 2.3m). ‘The factories here don’t have enough of a profit cushion to bear these kind of losses,’ said a spokesman.

The news is discouraging to the Cubatao industrial community, which has already sunk Dollars 350m into pollution controls over the past six years. According to Ciesp, if maintenance and gardening bills were included, that figure would rise to Dollars 800m. ‘It’s doubtful that we will be able to stand many more incidents like this,’ said Walter de Oliveira, president of the fertilizer group Indag.

Under normal circumstances, the loss would have been a mere drop in the bucket for these industrial dragons. But times are hard for Cubatao. Brazil is in the middle of a deep recession, severely denting their profits. ‘Within the year,’ said De Oliveira, ‘at least two fertilizer groups will be forced to close their doors due to deteriorating profits.’

According to Valter Lazzarini, president of Cetesb, the state may also insist on the closure of the Cosipa steel factory, the valley’s largest employer, for its failure to comply with environmental controls. During the state of emergency last week, Cosipa was the only factory in Cubatao which refused to suspend operations.

The company has also been slow in complying with environmental controls. ‘Cosipa has not followed controls as we would want,’ said Lazzarini. ‘We may have to take more drastic measures.’ Cosipa is an exception.

In general, Cubatao’s factories have been co-operative in the clean-up campaign which the city has waged over the last decade. Just six years ago Cubatao was surrounded by blackened ground. In some areas nothing but a few withered tree trunks remained of forest. Poisons from the factories turned the valley’s rivers into lifeless, black cesspools. Diarrhoea, caused by drinking contaminated water, was the major cause of death among Cubatao’s infants.

In February 1984 misery became disaster as a gas leak from a pipeline under a Cubatao slum set off a fire which claimed at least 99 lives. Soil erosion caused by the death of the forests was responsible for the next crisis, which occurred in January 1985.

That month a mudslide hit a factory, releasing a mass of ammonia gas. The town was forced to evacuate some 5,000 inhabitants from a nearby shanty town. Ironically, by the time the disasters occurred Cubatao was already on the road to recovery.

In 1981, concerned local environmentalists formed a group called Valley of Life. The group turned out to be Cubatao’s best hope for a decent quality of life. With the backing of the state of Sao Paulo, the activists waged a 10-year war on pollution in the valley, forcing companies to comply with existing regulations.

During the clean-up campaign, Cubatao’s factories reduced their output of organic wastes by 93 per cent, and of heavy metals by 97 per cent. Overall emissions of air pollutants in the valley were cut by 72 per cent.

Most of the inhabitants of the industrial zone were permanently evacuated. Today, just 150 families live within the industrial park’s limits, Cubatao’s most polluted section.

A replanting campaign was also initiated. The rivers have begun to live again, although according to Cetesb it will take another 10 years before Cubatao’s fish become safe to eat.

In view of the improvements, ecologists were beginning to view Cubatao as a shining example of the benefits of environmental controls. The town’s mayor had planned to bus in observers from next year’s Eco-92 conference in Rio to see the improvements first hand.

After last week’s events, however, things have changed. Cetesb said the pollution levels may have been high enough to kill most of the green areas surrounding the factories, undoing years of work.

The city also suffered a public relations blow. Brazil’s television stations ran sensational reports showing children barely hanging on to life at the end of oxygen masks. ‘Those children were ill before the state of emergency,’ claimed Emilia Hashimoto, a doctor at the local hospital.

Cubatao last week was seething with resentment and frustration. After all the investment and work it was a shock for the town to realise that it had not yet escaped from the dangers of pollution, or the bad public image that pollution had created.

Not surprisingly, many inhabitants denied that there had been a crisis at all. ‘I didn’t notice a thing wrong,’ said a factory worker, sporting an anti-pollution mask. ‘It was a beautiful day when they called a state of emergency.’

Cubatao’s frustration is easy to understand. After all the investment and work, the city still lives on the verge of crisis. Infant mortality rates are high, at 33.6 deaths per 1,000 children. And a study conducted in recent years by the University of Sao Paulo claimed that Cubatao children have 5 per cent less lung capacity than the national average.

According to Cetesb, last week’s crisis could easily happen again. Despite years of trying to bring itself back to life, Cubatao still faces some Dollars 40m-50m in investments to comply with Cetesb’s regulations.

Cubatao’s location does not help matters. The town nestles up against a 2,800-foot mountain range, which blocks the dispersion of pollutants. ‘I think companies should think carefully about the geography of a place before they decide on where to build a factory,’ said De Oliveira.

Now that several Cubatao companies appear to be on the verge of economic collapse, and Cetesb is threatening Cosipa with closure, Cubatao may be closer than ever to an environmental solution. ‘We try to work together with the companies to improve the environmental situation,’ said Sergio Correa Alejandro, the local Cetesb representative. ‘But Cubatao’s location is unsuitable for an industrial park. From an environmental point of view it would be best if the factories simply relocated.’

Unfortunately for the town’s inhabitants, however, an environmental victory may bring economic disaster. The closure of the fertilizer plants and Cosipa would shed thousands of jobs. And because of the area’s environmental reputation, attracting clean industries would be difficult. Despite 10 years of work, Cubatao’s inhabitants continue to live under an ominous mass of smog. For many of them, there is simply no where else to go.