During the 1960s, the municipality of Cubatão (São Paulo) developed into an important industrial park, mostly prompted by a strategically appealing location and the inauguration of Petrobrás “Presidente Artur Bernardes” oil refinery in 1955. The development of the industrial park, composed mostly by metal and petrochemical companies, did not follow any sort of planning and norms, which led to an uncontrollable spread of contamination sources among the population and the surrounding Atlantic Forest and mangrove ecosystems.
During the 1970s and the 1980s, the levels of contamination and its impacts in Cubatão were calamitous. The development of the industrial park not only led to high levels of deforestation of the Atlantic Forest ecosystem, it was also responsible for air and water pollutants raising to unsustainable levels. This affected both land and water fauna whose numbers in the region dropped drastically in only a few years, as well as further degradation of the forest due to acid rains. The impacts on human health were also felt: perinatal death rates with anencephaly, neurological disorders, altered hematological data and respiratory problems among the population, including industrial workers, have been reported. The topographic conditions– surrounded by mountains on three sides – and the wind patterns in the Cubatão Valley contributed to a slower dispersion of polluting particles, further aggravating the problem.
In the late 1970s, the situation was so severe that it rose not only the attention of the local media, but also of international organizations such as the United Nations who declared the Cubatão a “bad example” of industrial development. The region soon became known as the “Valley of Death”.
In 1981, with the focus of attention over Cubatão and the first health impact statistics show the severity of the problem, the State Government and the polluting companies created a workgroup called “Vale da Vida” (Valley of Life). The consortium issued a report proposing to move the population out of one of the most affected areas (Vila Parisi) and to expand the industrial complex. The report said nothing about contamination levels or corporate responsibility on its impacts. Neighbors and communities, workers unions and religious groups criticized the report and demanded stronger actions against the polluting companies. At the same time, they started relating contamination with other issues such as poverty, lack of services and proper housing. One of the outcomes of this organization was the creation of “Associação das Vítimas de Poluição e das Más Condições de Vida de Cubatão” (AVPMCVC) (The Association of Contamination Victims and Inadequate Life Conditions of Cubatão).
Because of community and media pressure, State authorities created the “Conselho Estadual do Meio Ambiente” (CONSEMA) (The State’s Environmental Council) in 1983, which drew the “Programa de Controle da Poluição Ambiental de Cubatão” (Action program to control contamination at Cubatão). It is important to stress the fact that the first Law to control pollution in the State of São Paulo had only been issued a couple of years before, in 1976. The World Bank, the State of São Paulo and the industrial sector financed the program, whose implementation was handed to the Companhia Ambiental do Estado de São Paulo (CETESB). It included a study of contamination sources, emission reduction goals, and sanctions, reforestation measures, as well as some elements of community participation. This last aspect contributed significantly to the popular support of the plan. In only a few years, contamination levels dropped considerably in Cubatão, even if current levels are still unsatisfactory.
A more recent study (2013) stated that even if current levels are acceptable, they still carry important health risks to the population, while the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed the importance of constant monitoring at emissions. One of the most worrying elements about the plan is that, since 1994, CETESB reduced the mechanisms of accountability on the measures taken under the plan.
Brazilian justice has fined several companies over the years and some still receive sanctions nowadays. A group of workers of Rhodia – a fertilizer producer that currently belongs to the multinational Solvay – organized under the “Associação de Combate aos Poluentes (ACPO)” (Association Fighting Pollutants). ACPO took legal action against the company for breaking a memorandum signed in 1995 (in Portuguese, the mechanism is called “Termo de Ajustamento e Conduta”) that stipulated regular follow-ups of workers health status and their reintegration in the company. Two years earlier, Rhodia had been forced to suspend its activities due to extreme contamination of soil and water. According to ACPO, the company was not respecting the memorandum and is not taking responsibility for health impacts on outsourced employees working on soil and water decontamination activities. This is a famous early case in the annals of environmentalism in Brazil of "corporate social irresponsibiliy", lack of liability by the Rhodia company.
Cubatão was designated by the UN as a Symbol of Environmental Recovery, with 98% of the level of pollutants controlled, and became a worldwide example as the city that was reborn from the shadows of pollution.
In 2017, a local court ruled 24 companies of the industrial park, including the above-mentioned Rhodia and Petrobras (owner of the refinery) will have to pay a compensation corresponding to the costs necessary to integral decontamination. However, it did not stipulated the value of the fine. Only a couple of months earlier, a fire in the “Vale Fertilizantes” facility had provoked a smoke leak containing ammonium nitrate and sulfuric acid, thus showing that despite the reduction of pollution levels, there is still risk of accidents. Fortunately, there were no victims of the incident.