Coal mining has generated, over the last century, a series of negative environmental impacts in the municipalities of the Southern state of Santa Catarina, Brazil, and these impacts have been the subject of protests from environmentalist entities and lawsuits filed by Federal prosecutors. However, due to its economic importance, the companies in the sector have received support from the State Government and the Federal Government. Coal has been defended by businessmen and some sectors of the State as an energy alternative in times of prolonged drought in Brazil, whose energy matrix is highly dependent on power generated by hydro power plants, as well as a product to be exported to Chinese industry.
Coal mining has been the basis of the economy of the southern state of Santa Catarina since the 19th century. In the 1930, the coal sector of Santa Catarina was strengthened through State intervention and tax incentives. The creation of the Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN), in Volta Redonda, Rio de Janeiro, and the mandatory use of national coal, boosted coal mining in state, which created a powerful political and economic elite. With the rise of the military to power from the 1964 coup d état, Santa Catarinas coal was raised to the category of strategic resource and the mining companies managed to expand the incentives, subsidies and a specially constituted body was created to ensure the purchase of Santa Catarina coal for national industrial coal needs and to establish a price policy. However, from the early 1980, with the growing economic crisis in Brazil and increased resistance to military dictatorship, the coal industry of Santa Catarina lost subsidies and was gradually replaced by imported equivalents or petroleum derivatives in Brazilian industry.
At the same time, strong resistance to mining, organized by various environmental entities, also strengthened in the region. They demanded the mitigation and remediation of environmental degradation of the coastal zone of the state from mineral wash for separation of coal and rocks. This activity has generated big piles of debris that were stored, without any kind of care, on the banks of streams, rivers and hills. It is estimated that currently the degradation caused by the waste generated by mining has already impacted about 2/3 of the hydrographic system of the southern part of the State. The Tubarão, Urussanga and Araranguá basins still receive daily 3,370 tons of total solids, 127 tons of acid drainage, 320 tonnes of iron sulphate and 35.5 tonnes total iron. With respect to water quality standards, pollutant concentrations exceed the parameters set out in the current Brazilian environmental legislation. In addition, the constant silting of the rivers raises the turbidity and increases the effects of overflow, causing untold damage to the agricultural sector. The increased acidity of rivers and the soil is accompanied by highly polluting gaseous emissions and can cause acid rain. This cycle of acidic water causes damage to vegetation and agricultural activities, and makes the land unproductive. In addition, a number of highly polluting industries have organized around the coal mines, such as steel mills and processing industries, which use coal to generate power in their blast furnaces, and are also supplied by the energy generated by the thermoelectric plant in the municipality of Tubarão, a large coal consumer.
The use of coal as an alternative energy has been a proposal often advocated by the coal industry. As a way to increase the survival rate of the sector and keep the remaining mining, many entrepreneurs in the sector have publicly defended the use of coal in new thermal power stations to be built in the region. For example, companies Cabonífera Criciúma and Cabonífera Metropolitana already presented a project to build a plant of this type in Treviso. Such proposals have won the public support of politicians in the State, State representatives and even of the current Governor. In March 2012, for example, the Assembleia Legislativa do Estado de Santa Catarina hosted a meeting with Chinese businessmen to support the negotiation of a contract to boost exploration and ensure the export of ore to the Asian country. In June 2013, the Assembleia Legislativa do Estado de Santa Catarina held a debate on the issue, it was organized by members of the Assembly, who advocate the expansion of the coal exploration of Santa Catarina and supported the negotiations with China.
For all these reasons, environmental organizations and social movements continue to challenge the coal industry and the projects created to increase mining in the territory. Between these entities are included the NGO Sócios da Natureza, Pastoral da Ecologia, Movimento Ecológico de Siderópolis (MES) and the Movimento Ecológico Tubaronense (Movet), entities that since the mid-1980 have struggled against the negative consequences of mining. The Ministério Público Federal (MPF) has also acted in defense of the collective rights of the population, especially with regard to the preservation of the environment and the protection of public health. In 2000, the MPF undertook a public civil action against the coal companies and managed to establish an adjustment of conduct term (TAC) forcing companies to carry out projects to mitigate the environmental damage that resulted from their activities. (a TAC is an agreement to stop environmental degradation and remediate the affected area (and can include compensation) signed between the wrongdoer(s) and the relevant environmental authority or the Public Attorney’s Office). Compliance with the TAC has occurred slowly and has already generated some achievements and many setbacks, so occasionally there is the suspension of the activities of many of these companies for breaches of the terms agreed.
In may 2012, the Movimento Içarense pela Vida held a protest against the expansion of mining, coal consumption in Brazil and exports to other countries. The protest took place during the visit of President Dilma Roussef to Laguna for the inauguration of a road. The group demanded that the President maintain decree 498/2011 which excluded coal as a source of electrical energy in auctions held by the Federal Government. But their claims have not been met, since the Federal Government chose to stimulate the industry and included the coal energy in an auction which will be held by the Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica (ANEEL) at the end of August 2013. If the purchase is approved, the main source of coal-powered energy will be the thermal power plant proposed by Carbonífera Criciúma.