Brazilian city battles pollution. Quality of air, water improves in `valley of death'

Thanks to perhaps the biggest anti-pollution program ever mounted in Brazil, this industrial city nestled in the Serra do Mar mountains is on the way to losing its reputation as ``the valley of death.'' With the Sao Paulo State environmental agency, Cetesb, mandating industrial companies to reduce effluence that had made this one of the worst polluted cities in the world, Cubatao's air, water, and soil are much cleaner than before, Cetesb officials and Cubatao residents say.

Two solid signs of this are that fish have returned to the Cubatao River after a 25-year absence, and the mountains are again growing thick with vegetation.

But as the cloud of dirty air still hanging over Cubatao indicates, the battle to clean up the emissions is far from over. And environmentalists say residues from heavy metals could still be posing life-threatening health risks.

``The situation has improved, but Cetesb hasn't solved the pollution problem,'' says Fabio Feldmann, Brazil's leading environmentalist in Congress. ``Heavy metals persist for a long time.''

Cetesb's success in Cubatao is one of the few such victories in the third world, where environmental problems are quickly becoming worse than in developed countries.

In their rush to industrialize and give their citizens a better life, third world nations have rarely given thought to protecting the environment.

While concern for the environment has become a byword in the United States and Western Europe, people in countries such as Brazil are only beginning to learn the meaning of words such as pollution, ecology, and smog. Not surprisingly, then, few governments have had both the will and the power needed to take action against polluters.

``In Brazil, the government has thought that development should come at any cost,'' says Renato Tucunduva, president of the Sao Paulo Consumers Association.

The cost for Cubatao's 100,000 residents has been high.

In 1984, a slum neighborhood blew up after gasoline leaked from an underground pipe owned by Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. The government put the death toll at 90. But Cetesb officials say another 400 people were incinerated without a trace.

As much as half of Cubatao's population has suffered from respiratory ailments. Rates for skin cancer and leukemia are believed to be abnormally high, although exact statistics are not available.

Hundreds of workers at Cosipa, the goverment-owned Sao Paulo Steel Co. have been laid off for health problems.

``The future isn't too bright,'' says Antonio da Silva, a Cosipa worker laid off two years ago.

But Mr. da Silva says air pollution in the slum where he lives, Vila Parisi, has improved considerably in the past two years.

Since 1984, Cetesb has been requiring Cubatao's often-reluctant industrial concerns to reduce emissions from a total of 320 air, water, and soil pollution sources.

To date, emissions from 71 percent of these sources have been brought to levels acceptable to the World Health Organization, according to Benedito da Concei,cao, who heads Cetesb's office here, pointing to statistics showing a reduction in a wide range of pollutants.

Geraldo da Cruz, one of several people spending a recent afternoon fishing on a muddy bank of the Cubatao River, said he was glad that pollution levels had been reduced. ``I love to eat fish,'' he said, adding that he didn't fear possible contamination.

But winning the battle against pollution in Cubatao hasn't been easy.

Mr. da Concei,cao says the agency has had to fine each of the 23 industrial companies responsible for the pollution in trying to force them to comply with Ceteo's orders.

This has cost the companies about $1 million, although this is only a fraction of the $300 million they've had to spend on scrubbers, filters, water treatment facilities, and other pollution control equipment.

Da Concei,cao says the firms will have to spend another $200 million to control the remaining pollution sources by the December 1989 deadline.

The Cetesb official complained that Cosipa has been particularly laggard in meeting emission-control orders.

``Some companies have been a little slow in reacting to the problem,'' says Mario Cilento, plant manager at Carbocloro, an industrial concern 50 percent owned by Dallas-based Diamond Shamrock Corp. ``Sometimes the solutions to the problems take time.''

Several Cetesb officials complained that companies pressured agency higher-ups into granting them a three-year extension for meeting the emission deadline, which had originally been December 1986.

``We're not as rigorous with the companies as we were before,'' says a Cetesb official, adding that several agency staffers in Cubatao were transferred because their zeal made companies unhappy. ``We have the law on our side, but politics often intrudes.''

Cubatao seemed an ideal location for development when the county's military regime in the 1960s began its industrialization drive. The 23 Brazilian and multinational companies that built factories here turned the outskirts of town into a sprawl of steel, cement, and fertilizer factories.

Pollution soon followed, becoming particularly dangerous because the surrounding mountains prevented proper wind dispersal and trapped the toxic gases and dust.

``It takes time to overcome our tradition of not being concerned with the environment,'' says Concei,cao. ``Despite our success here, there are still many Cubataos in Brazil.''

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