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


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. 

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 is not respecting the memorandum and is not taking responsibility for health impacts on outsourced employees working on soil and water decontamination activities.

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. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Refinaria Presidente Bernardes “Vale da Morte”, Cubatão, São Paulo, Brazil
State or province: São Paulo
Location of conflict:Cubatão
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 commodities:Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project details:

Em 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
Affected Population:600,000 -800,000
Start of the conflict:1970
Company names or state enterprises:Petróleo Brasileiro S.A. (PETROBRAS ) from Brazil - owner
Relevant government actors:The 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 organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:“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);

Conflict and Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Informal workers
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Community-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

Impacts of the project

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-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
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 an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain: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

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries


A gestão ambiental do pólo industrial de Cubatão a partir do programa de controle da poluição iniciado em 1983: atores, instrumentos e indicadore


Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Mais de 3 décadas após ‘Vale da Morte’, Cubatão volta a lutar contra alta na poluição

Eles cresceram sob chuva ácida e hoje lutam como engenheiros pelo meio ambiente

Cetesb aplica nova multa na empresa Rhodia de Cubatão

Petrobrás deve pagar R$ 322 milhões por vazamento de óleo na Serra do Mar

Funcionários da Rhodia-Cubatão sofrem com negligência

24 empresas são condenadas por poluir Cubatão,24-empresas-sao-condenadas-por-poluir-cubatao,70002021769

“Vale da Morte” foi o símbolo de Cubatão

[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

A história da poluição em Cubatão e como a cidade deixou de ser o “Vale da Morte”

Moradores de Cubatão temem se tornar as próximas vítimas da Vale

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Cubatão – muito a se fazer

VLI - Terminal Integrador Portuário Luiz Antonio Mesquita


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

Without filters in the industry chimneys, black smoke was expelled alongside residential neighborhoods Source:

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Contributor:ENVJustice Project
Last update24/03/2019



Fumaça à vista em 1982. Cubatão recebeu da ONU o título de cidade mais poluída do mundo

Foto: Alfredo Rizzutti/Estadão-1/4/1982

Without filters in the industry chimneys, black smoke was expelled alongside residential neighborhoods