Brazilian Police Hunt for Forest Company Owners

By André Muggiati

CAMPOS, Brazil, June 3, 2003 (ENS) - Brazilian Federal Police are searching for three owner-directors of a forest company that spilled toxic waste into two rivers in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janiero last March. A judge has ordered that they be taken into custody, but to date they have eluded police.

In Campos last week, Judge José Arthur Borges Diniz ordered the imprisonment of three directors of Florestal Cataguazes. On March 29, after a containment wall was broken, some 1.2 billion liters of toxic waste spilled from a holding area in Cataguazes into the Pomba River in the Paraíba do Sul river basin. Both rivers were contaminated.

The accident was one of the biggest in Brazil’s history. Millions of animals and fishes died, and 500,000 people in eight municipalities had their water supply cut for more than a month.

The owners of the company, Spanish citizens Juan Jose Campos Alonso and José Paes Vasquez, and a Brazilian citizen João Gregório do Bem are the men being sought by the police.

The judge decided that the company did not fulfill the deal that they made after the accident with the public attorney’s state and federal offices. According to the arrangement, the company should have paid R$10 million (US$3.3 million) by May 16.

The money from the fine would have been used by the government to minimize the damage from the spill.

river

The Paraíba do Sul river was contaminated by the Florestal Cataguazes spill. (Photo courtesy Geofiscal Brasil)
“This was the biggest ecological accident in fresh waters in Brazil history, with unpredictable consequences for the population, further impacts for future generations, and huge expenses for the public purse, companies and the society,” said the judge in his order.

The order also establishes new emergency measures that shall be taken by public authorities to avoid other environmental accidents in the region.

During the process, the company lawyers alleged that the material was not stocked by the current owners of Cataguazes, but by its former owners. The company was sold to the new partners around 10 years ago. But Brazilian legislation considers that the current directors should have knowledge of the environmental conditions of the company at the moment they acquired it and should have taken measures to avoid disasters.

Besides determining the responsibility of the company for the accident, officials are investigating to see if there was an omission by public authorities relating to the precarious storage of chemicals by Florestal Cataguazes.

The methods of toxic waste treatment by 50 other companies in the region also are being investigated.

In addition to ordering the imprisonment of its owners, the judge also established judicial intervention over the direction of Iberpar, Indústria Cataguazes de Papel and Florestal Cataguazes. The last two companies are subsidiaries of Iberpar.

This intervention should last six months, and may be extended for another six months. The intervenors will study the measures that should be taken to avoid more spills, and they will be responsible for the payment of the previous arrangement and for the fine applied by environmental authorities to Florestal Cataguazes of R$50 million (US$16 million).

According to an environmental authority’s inspection, another company reservoir is totally full of toxic waste and could break and leak at any time. It contains 50 million liters of toxic waste containing heavy metals and is already leaking in small amounts. The inspection considered that its structure is internally corroded, the same problem that caused the March spill in the other reservoir.

Recent analyses of the sediments in the Paraíba basin detected contamination by dioxins, most probably due to the spill. More than 60 different fish species were affected by the accident. One of them, the surubim da Paraíba, exists only in this region and might have been extinguished because of the accident.

On the Atlantic coast, where the Paraíba do Sul ends, fishermen were forbidden to work for three months, to avoid the consumption of contaminated fish. They are being assisted by the government with unemployment security, until they are allowed to go back to work.