The Amazon v big business: The poisoned river that enraged a city (VIDEO)

Owners of a giant bauxite processing plant in Brazil have admitted untreated water leaked into the Pará River, contaminating local drinking supplies. It’s feared the discharge may have caused people in the region to become ill.

Norwegian energy company Norsk Hydro has apologized for the unauthorized drainage from parts of its Alunorte refinery, which sits in a forested outpost between the Pará River and the cities of Barcarena and Belém. However, the company says there is currently no evidence of dangerous bauxite residue spilling into the 40 mile (64km) river.

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The company has published information online explaining how torrential downpours in Para State in February led to the discovery of unauthorized discharges of water – one from the roof of a coal storage shed and other releases of surface water that mixed with caustic soda and entered the Canal Velho channel. The Evandro Chagas Instituto (ECI), a non-profit health organization in Brazil investigating the incident, has also reported traces of aluminum in water outside the refinery.

Images taken in February and distributed by the ECI show red-hued floodwater surrounding parts of the refinery, something which Norsk Hydro has put down to large parts of Barcarena not being asphalted and water mixing with soil.

Brazilian authorities have hit Norsk Hydro with two fines amounting to around US$6 million following the fallout. Meanwhile, the company has launched an independent review and promised a US$64 million investment in water treatment at the Barcarena plant.

“We have discharged untreated rain and surface water into the Pará River. This is completely unacceptable and in breach with what Hydro stands for. On behalf of the company, I personally apologize to the communities, authorities and the society,” Hydro CEO Svein Richard Brandtzaeg said on Monday. The company has now sealed the pipes that were discharging run-off water illegally.

Residents of Barcarena have in the past accused the company of polluting their city, with some complaining of conditions like diarrhoea and ‘body itching’. “Barcarena was Belem’s postcard. Today it is a postcard of the rottenness of what this company brought to us. What we can see is that this company invaded Barcarena,” said Antonio Gomes Pereira, a member of the Cainquiama, a protest group made up of indigenous people.

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“Back in the days everyone would swim in the igarapes [small rivers in the Amazon region]. Today, no one dares swim in the rivers because of the pollution.”

Hydro Alunorte has subsequently been ordered to cut bauxite and alumina production by 50 per cent. The Para State’s Secretariat of Environment and Sustainability has also threatened to suspend operations at the firm’s Paragominas mine, which transports bauxite via a 244-pipeline to Barcarena.

RT.com has contacted Norsk Hydro for comment.

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By Luke Holohan

Video: Sergio Angulo

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