German steel plant pumps graphite into Rio′s air | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 19.11.2012
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German steel plant pumps graphite into Rio's air

ThyssenKrupp has built an ultra-modern steel plant in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. But the plant is emitting graphite dust and locals are worried about their health.

Avenida Joao XXIII is a long, desolate road in the suburb of Santa Cruz, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. The houses are rundown and stray dogs scavenge for food in the garbage piles along the sidewalk. Filthy, polluted water dribbles along the roads.

ARCHIV - Die Sinteranlage des Hüttenwerkes von ThyssenKrupp an der Bucht von Sepetiba bei Rio de Janeiro, aufgenommen am 16.06.2010. Der größte deutsche Stahlkonzern ThyssenKrupp prüft den Verkauf seiner verlustreichen Stahlwerke in Brasilien und den USA. Der Vorstand habe entschieden, für die Werke strategische Optionen in alle Richtungen zu prüfen, teilte das Unternehmen am Dienstag (15.05.2012) in Essen mit. Foto: Helmut Reuter dpa/lnw +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

ThyssenKrupp has been fined several times for polluting the air

It takes hours for the people here to get into the city for work each day. So, when German steel producer ThyssenKrupp announced it would be opening a plant here in 2006, locals were thrilled. This brought 3500 jobs right to their doorstep.

Some six years later, more than 2000 Brazilians earn their living in what has become South America's largest steel plant. But the mood here has darkened and as reports of health problems spead, people are wondering about graphite dust emitted from the plant.

Allergies and skin diseases

A fence divides the ThyssenKrupp plant from the houses in Avenida Joao XXIII. There is a small kiosk where bus drivers stop for coffee. They huddle together and discuss problems they believe are caused by the graphite dust in the air.

"At night, this silver rain is comes down on our roof," said one driver in an interview with DW. "The next morning, everything is dirty and there is a centimeter of dust on the sidewalk."

Dalva da Silva Oliveira (picture: Solveig Flörke)

Dalva da Silva Oliveira says her child is sick because of the metal dust in the air

"They intentionally do this at night because then you don't see it," another added. They say the arrival of the silver dust brought with it allergies, respiratory problems and skin irritations.

Dalva da Silva Oliveira also lives on this street. Her little house sits right next to the fence that divides this community from the ThyssenKrupp plant. She told DW to look at her dog’s skin, which is covered in bumps and irritations. "Nobody knows what this skin illness is," she said and added that even the vet was at a loss to explain the reaction. Dalva thinks the dog has fallen ill because of the "silver rain" from the steel plant.

"Graphite dust is not dangerous"

ThyssenKrupp has issued apologies in the past for any nuisance caused by the graphite dust emissions, but says there have been no incidents in nearly two years. ThyssenKrupp spokesperson Luciana Finazzi told DW that there had been graphite dust exposure in three communities within a two kilometer range of the steel plant. But she added that it wasn’t dangerous.

Claudia Besch disagrees. The dermatologist lives in Santa Cruz and says her car is sometimes covered by the silver rain. It’s an inconvenience, she explains, but the main threat actually lurks in the air. "The problem is the poisonous particles in the air that we can't actually see. When the concentration in the air is continuously high, this can have consequences."

ThyssenKrupp plant (picture: ThyssenKrupp dpa/lnw)

Local politicians are threatening to close the plant even though it provides thousands of jobs

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the amount of graphite particles should never be more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. If a plant crosses this threshold, the WHO recommends they limit this over-exposure to three days a year at most. Brazilian authorities actually allow for three times this amount to be emitted, but ThyssenKrupp has failed to stay within Brazilian limits.

ThyssenKrupp has already been fined four million euros ($5.1 million) by Rio authorities plus an additional compensation package of 1.7 million euros. They have also been ordered to plant 15,000 trees in the suburb around the steel plant. But are the fines having any effect? This is the third time that ThyssenKrupp has been fined for graphite dust emissions.

"We are very sorry. We would like to apologize to the residents," says spokesperson Luciana Finazzi. "The dust was whipped up by the strong winds."

Closure threat

Locals living around the plant are not in agreement about what to do. Many people here have benefitted since the ThyssenKrupp plant was built. Others argue life was no worse before the plant appeared. Eduardo Marques has lived in Santa Cruz all his life. The 56-year old runs a small supermarket with his wife and says business has improved since the plant was built.

But not everyone has profited from the jobs at the plant or the boost it has given the local economy. They aren’t quite so willing to forget about the negative impact of the steel plant on their community.

Marilene Ramos is the chairwoman of the Rio de Janeiro environmental authority and she has no patience for the excuses offered by ThyssenKrupp. "When the steel plant was still being planned, there was clear agreement between the parties than no such thing would take place," she told DW. "If we had known how it would be, we never would have permitted the plant to be built."

There are some politicians working towards the closure of the plant. Regional Environment Minister Carlos Minc is threatening to close the plant down if there are anymore incidents of graphite dust exposure.

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