Smelters Destroy Brazilian Town
The iron smelters of Acailandia
In the outskirts of Acailandia in northeast Brazil, the furnaces of two factories operate twenty-four hours a day, processing iron ore from Vale’s giant Carajás mine. Several million tons of this ore are smelted into pig iron in these factories each year. Piquiá de Baixo is a neighborhood in Acailandia situated on a small strip of land between a motorway and one of the pig iron factories, and within a thousand yards of the other factory. Until recently, three other factories operated in the same area.
The factories were built in the early 1990s with the promise of bringing development to the region. For the local people, development has remained an unfulfilled promise. The factories have instead brought pollution, unbearable living conditions, illness, and poverty.
The production processes involve grinding the iron ore, pebble stones, and charcoal in the open air, generating large quantities of dust. The mixture is then taken to furnaces, where it is smelted at very high temperatures. An unending stream of gases, including carbon monoxide, is released, and the resulting soot is expelled through chimneys that contain no filters. The large quantities of residues that are generated in the process are left in the open.
Water from the local stream is used to cool the furnaces. When the process is completed, the water is discharged, untreated, back into the stream, which also receives rainwater that drains untreated from the factory’s patio. Residents are also bombarded by unceasing and unhealthy levels of noise from all the operations.
Decades of problems
Over the years, the three hundred families living in Piquiá de Baixo have lost everything they had: their good health, livelihoods, and homes. In the words of a scientific expert appointed by a judge in a lawsuit brought by some of the families, pollution has made the area literally uninhabitable, and the houses worthless. The expert’s study concluded that the pollution has resulted primarily from the lack of prevention measures at the factories.
Inside homes in Piquiá de Baixo, everything is covered by a layer of black iron dust. The effects of this dust can be seen in the residents’ lung X-rays; felt on their perennially itchy skin and eyes; and heard in their constant coughs. Excess iron in the body causes harm to the liver, pancreas, and heart, and can result in cirrhosis, diabetes, arthritis, and arrhythmia.
Relocation and lawsuits
In February 2015, an appeals court in Maranhao ruled in favor of twenty-one families in a lawsuit against one of the factories. Each family was awarded $14,000 in compensation for having been exposed to pollution caused by the factory, and an additional amount (to be determined) to compensate for the loss of their homes.
While relocation is ultimately the only option for the affected families (the community has been negotiating with Vale, the government, and the factories to pay the costs of relocation), the larger problem will not be solved until the factories take appropriate measures to reduce and treat their emissions and effluents, and compensate all the families for having exposed them to high levels of pollution and the resulting harms.
EDLC is working with Justica nos Trilhos, a coalition of NGOs defending the rights of the people in twenty-seven communities affected by Vale’s operations. Justica has been moving the families’ relocation process forward, and has brought lawsuits challenging illegal licenses and other abuses of the law.
In 2020, a lawsuit will be be filed by the community of Piquiá against the two operating smelters, the mining company providing the ore, and the government. The community will seek health treatment and compensation for all of the harms inflicted on them: exposure to toxic fumes, soot, noise, and water and air pollution. They will also seek compensation for the loss of their houses, which now have no value. They will ask for the court to order the companies to install pollution prevention and/or mitigation equipment, and to fully remediate the environment. Finally, they will compensation for the collective harms (dano moral colectivo) suffered by the community, awarded under Brazilian law in cases of harm to a group in order to dissuade the responsible party from continuing to cause the harm.