(IPS) – A protestor held out a handful of metal dust, part of the “silvery rain” falling that day in Santa Cruz, a low-income neighbourhood on the west side of this Brazilian city, as proof of the environmental nightmare affecting the area ever since a German steel plant opened there.
“This is concrete evidence of environmental pollution,” said provincial lawmaker Marcelo Freixo of the Socialism and Freedom Party, referring to the graphite dust generated by the manufacture of pig iron, a raw material for the steel industry.
Freixo was one of the demonstrators protesting against the graphite dust pollution Friday Feb. 25 in front of the headquarters of the Rio de Janeiro state Secretariat of the Environment (SEA).
The metallic dust is only one of several forms of pollution emitted by ThyssenKrupp Companhia Siderúrgica do Atlântico (TKCSA) in Santa Cruz.
Local residents and environmental and social organisations want to prevent ThyssenKrupp Steel, Germany’s largest steel producer and holder of 73 percent of TKCSA shares — the remainder of which are held by Brazil’s Vale mining company — from receiving its definitive environmental licence.
“Air pollution in Santa Cruz “is constant, and some days it is so intense that a silvery rain falls over the community, hurting people’s health, especially that of children and elderly people,” the protestors said in a communiqué.
Aurora, a domestic employee living in Santa Cruz who preferred not to give her surname, showed IPS what she regards as another irrefutable proof of what she described as an “environmental crime”: a blood-stained handkerchief that she uses daily to wipe her nose, which is irritated and sore from the “poisonous” dust.
Eliana Mesquita, another Santa Cruz resident, said the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), the official agency in charge of investigating cases of environmental pollution, has still not confirmed a direct link between recent air pollution and the reported health complaints.
But she cited symptoms harmful to health that emerged since the steelworks opened in June 2010, such as eye and skin irritation, skin rashes, respiratory problems, dehydration of nasal mucus and earache, to mention the most visible.
Alexandre Dias, a professor and researcher at Fiocruz, has no doubt that the pollution is causing public health problems that may be irreparable.
He said that in addition to graphite powder there are other polluting substances that deserve detailed study, such as those carried by the wind from trains with open freight wagons.
In December, the Rio de Janeiro state prosecutor’s office accused TKCSA and its directors of polluting the atmosphere at levels “capable of harming human health.”
The charge was based on studies by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Institute of Geosciences, which found a 600 percent increase in the average iron concentration in the area around the ironworks, compared to the period before the plant opened.
People in Santa Cruz also complained of other environmental damage, such as pollution of Sepetiba Bay, which they say is impoverishing and ruining 8,000 families who depend on small-scale fishing for a living.
Jaci do Nascimento, one of the local fishermen who took part in the protest, told IPS that before the advent of the plant, they would take 200 boxes of 23 to 27 kg each in a day’s fishing. “Nowadays, after working ourselves to the bone for 16 hours, we barely catch 17 kg,” he said.
In January the SEA announced it would set up an independent audit of the plant. But the steel mill’s opponents complained that the company chosen to carry it out is part of the Usiminas steel and mining conglomerate, which they say is in partnership with Vale, the Brazilian shareholder in the plant in question.
Late last year the SEA fined TKCSA 1.66 million dollars for emission of graphite dust. Previously, in August, it levied a fine of one million dollars for an earlier release.
On the day of the protest, IPS tried to contact the TKCSA press office by telephone and e-mail, but got no reply.
On Dec. 26, TKCSA issued a statement saying the graphite dust emission was due to a defective crane and a high wind that spread the graphite powder over the neighbouring community. It added that the problem had been solved.
It also said “air quality monitoring stations indicated that throughout the episode, there were no violations of the legal standards.”
Freixo told IPS that threats against residents involved in the protests were another matter of concern. One victim of such threats is currently in the justice system’s witness protection programme.
He attributed the threats to “militias” — armed groups including former police officers that run illegal businesses in Rio de Janeiro and other states.
“Michele” (not the source’s real name, for security reasons) told IPS that the militias have a hand in controlling hiring at the plant.
SEA officials who met with a committee of protestors reiterated Friday that their official position is not to award a final licence to the company unless it meets environmental standards.
When the plant was inaugurated in June 2010 by then president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Monitor Mercantil, a Rio newspaper, stressed that it was the largest private investment in Brazil in 15 years: 4.8 billion dollars.
The plant will produce five million tonnes of steel slabs annually, representing a 40 percent increase in Brazilian steel exports and adding one billion dollars to its balance of payments.
The construction phase employed 30,000 workers, and the operational phase will create 3,500 jobs, according to TKCSA.
Asked why the protests appear to be getting nowhere, Freixo resorted to a song by Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso: “It’s the power of capital, that builds and destroys things of beauty,” the lyrics say.