Refinaria Presidente Bernardes “Vale da Morte”, Cubatão, São Paulo, Brazil

In the late fifties, the Brazilian government created an industrial center. Companies were invited to build factories without environmental restrictions. Due to this, Cubatão became one of the most polluted areas in the world.


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 chirurgical 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. 

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Basic Data
NameRefinaria Presidente Bernardes “Vale da Morte”, Cubatão, São Paulo, Brazil
Province São Paulo
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Chemical industries
Mineral processing
Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Other industries
Manufacturing activities
Oil and gas refining
Specific CommoditiesChemical products
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsEm 1977, a emissão de componentes químicos tóxicos como monóxido de carbono, benzeno, óxidos de enxofre e nitrogênio, hidrocarbonetos e material particulado (partículas de poluentes suspensas no ar) liberados em Cubatão ultrapassava mil toneladas por dia. [1]
Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population600,000 -800,000
Start Date1970
Company Names or State EnterprisesPetróleo Brasileiro S.A. (PETROBRAS ) from Brazil - owner
Relevant government actorsThe State’s Environmental Council; CETESB, Companhia Ambiental do Estado de São Paulo; ACPO, Associação de Combate aos Poluentes; CONSEMA, Conselho Estadual do Meio Ambiente.
Environmental justice organisations and other supporters“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);
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingInformal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of MobilizationCommunity-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths
Potential: Accidents, Malnutrition
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights
Project StatusIn operation
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Institutional changes
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this as a success?Not Sure
Why? Explain briefly.Since the more critical years in the 1980s, pollution levels diminished significantly in Cubatão and with it, the danger for the population and the ecosystem. Nonetheless, current levels of air contaminants still pose some health threats: they are acceptable, though not the desired. At the same time, companies stall or directly avoid assuming urgent decontamination processes and taking responsibility for affected workers and population. Even when fined by a court, the companies often find ways to avoid payment by appealing these decisions. Finally, there’s the risk of new accidents which, together with the lack of accountability on security and decontamination measures, poses a considerable problem to the city’s inhabitants. Even if the situation has improved, the population is still far from seeing justice done.
Sources and Materials

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A gestão ambiental do pólo industrial de Cubatão a partir do programa de controle da poluição iniciado em 1983: atores, instrumentos e indicadore
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A história da poluição em Cubatão e como a cidade deixou de ser o “Vale da Morte”
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Mais de 3 décadas após ‘Vale da Morte’, Cubatão volta a lutar contra alta na poluição
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Eles cresceram sob chuva ácida e hoje lutam como engenheiros pelo meio ambiente
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Cetesb aplica nova multa na empresa Rhodia de Cubatão
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Petrobrás deve pagar R$ 322 milhões por vazamento de óleo na Serra do Mar
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Funcionários da Rhodia-Cubatão sofrem com negligência
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24 empresas são condenadas por poluir Cubatão
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Moradores de Cubatão temem se tornar as próximas vítimas da Vale
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“Vale da Morte” foi o símbolo de Cubatão
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[1] BBC News Brasil - Mais de 3 décadas após ‘Vale da Morte’, Cubatão volta a lutar contra alta na poluição

Camilla Costa

10 março 2017
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Media Links

Cubatão – muito a se fazer
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VLI - Terminal Integrador Portuário Luiz Antonio Mesquita
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Other Documents

Fumaça à vista em 1982. Cubatão recebeu da ONU o título de cidade mais poluída do mundo Foto: Alfredo Rizzutti/Estadão-1/4/1982
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Without filters in the industry chimneys, black smoke was expelled alongside residential neighborhoods Source:
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Meta Information
ContributorENVJustice Project
Last update24/03/2019