Shell Group May Face Lawsuit in Brazil
By Mario Osava*
The British-Dutch petroleum giant is blamed for contaminating the water supplies of the town of Paulinia, endangering the health of its residents with dangerous chemical waste, including some known carcinogens.
RIO DE JANEIRO - The 181 residents of a neighborhood in the Brazilian municipality of Paulinia, 120 km from Sao Paulo, waited anxiously for a month to find out the results of a series of toxicology tests.
Finally, the State University of Sao Paulo's Toxicology Center came up with the numbers that everyone had feared: nearly 80 percent of the residents presented varying degrees of chronic intoxication from industrial waste.
The groundwater in the Recanto dos Pássaros neighborhood, made up of a cluster of 60 houses, were contaminated by a chemical plant belonging to Shell Group. The persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metal residues that invaded the district's underground water supplies are known to cause cancer and serious damage to the nervous, immune and reproductive systems.
The elimination of POPs worldwide is the aim of a convention that 90 countries signed two months ago in Stockholm.
''My mother-in-law died of cancer, my wife also developed cancerous tumors, and even my dogs have tumors. Nobody can convince me that the cause wasn't the chemical contamination,'' said Antonio de Padua Mello, who has lived in Recanto for 23 years.
After the toxicology test results were announced, the Health Secretariat of Paulinia said it would relocate the Recanto residents to another neighborhood if Shell does not take the initiative, given that the POPs continue to pose a health threat.
But the story does not end there because the test results could determine the legal course of action in the case. The Public Ministry (prosecutor) is to decide whether it will sue the Shell Group for damages to public health and the environment.
For now, the neighbors affected by the contamination have decided to seek reparations from the British-Dutch transnational.
''There are documents proving that Shell omitted data, such as information about the ditches where it buried the toxic waste, which is itself a crime,'' Padua Mello told Tierramérica. Those who try to sell their property in order to move elsewhere are not finding buyers.
Beginning in 1977, Shell produced aldrin, dieldrin and endrin at the Recanto plant, three of the 12 POPs condemned by the Stockholm convention. The sale of these agricultural toxins was banned in Brazil in 1985, but production for export continued until 1990.
The firm admitted responsibility in 1994 for the contamination of the land around the chemical plant in an audit prior to the Shell agro-chemical group's sale of the plant to the US-based Cyanamid. As such, it is still responsible for the environmental problems of the property that was acquired last year by the Germany-based BASF chemical company.
Shell acted in a manner that is ''at least irresponsible, if not criminal,'' stated Karen Suassuna, Brazilian coordinator of the campaign against toxic substances waged by the international environmental watchdog Greenpeace.
In addition to failing to take measures to contain and eliminate the contaminants, Shell waited until this year to analyze the ground water of the chemical plant's neighboring community. In some wells, dieldrin levels were 16 times greater than what is permitted under Brazilian law.
For years, the residents of Recanto have been complaining about the strange color, odor and taste of the water, and have presented with medical problems including memory loss, fatigue, headaches, allergies and insomnia. In this small community there were five cases of cancer in the last 10 years, four of which proved fatal.
But Shell representatives maintain that the ''low levels'' of chemical residues detected do not pose a threat to human health and that medical studies conducted on behalf of the firm did not find individuals contaminated with dieldrin or endrin.
Paulinia Health secretary, José Nino Meloni, announced he would seek health tests of other potential victims, such as former employees of the chemical plant, who number around 2,000.
Paulinia is just one example of many health and environmental disasters involving the chemical industry.
Shell built its plant here just 150 meters from the Atibaia River, which supplies water to several neighboring cities. Greenpeace's Suassuna pointed out that, in their countries of origin, transnational companies are subject to very strict regulations, standards they should have to comply with wherever they operate.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.