Olympic Athletes Go for Gold Amid Rio Garbage

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By Michael Kepp

July 25 — When Brazil won the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was overseeing a booming economy, proclaimed at the time: “Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country.”

Seven years later, Brazil has an acting president (Lula's successor awaits impeachment on corruption charges) and is in a severe recession. It also made its goals for the Games that start Aug. 5 decidedly more modest: avoid a major crisis related to security, the Zika virus or the fetid waters of Rio.

Among athletes and in environmental circles, conditions in Guanabara Bay could be the most problematic.

‘A Latrine.'

Nestled between Sugarloaf Mountain and other granite peaks that create Rio's postcard image, the site of the sailing competitions is so contaminated by fecal matter and floating debris that some athletes are worried that pollution could turn the racing lanes into a health risk and an obstacle course.

“The sewage that rivers spew into Guanabara Bay has turned it into a latrine, contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria and pathogenic micro-organisms that can cause various diseases, from skin rashes and conjunctivitis to gastroenteritis,” Mario Moscatelli, a Rio de Janeiro biologist who also belongs to an environmental nonprofit that advocates for recovering coastal ecosystems, told Bloomberg BNA.

“So those competing in the 2016 Olympic sailing events face health risks,” said Moscatelli, “especially if rains on the eve of the race increase the flow of sewage into the bay and if, at the time of the race, the tide is low and little Atlantic Ocean water enters the bay to dilute the concentration of sewage.”

Axel Grael, a former state environmental official who has sailed in the bay's water since the late 1970s and whose two brothers are Olympic sailing medalists, downplayed those health risks.

“I don't think Olympic sailing athletes face a major health risk because most legs of the race course are close to the less polluted mouth of the bay,” Grael told Bloomberg BNA. “The big problem is the floating debris, like a piece of wood or plastic bottle, that could get wedged into a rudder. You want to avoid a scenario where a piece of debris decides a race.”

How did it come to this, where an Olympic sailing race being decided by chunks of garbage is considered the lesser of two evils?

Better Times

In 2009, when Rio de Janeiro bested Chicago, Tokyo and Madrid to win the rights to host the Olympics, its economy was sailing along. Guanabara Bay was polluted, but money had been earmarked for cleanup.

But a prolonged economic dive has put many of the country's plans on the back burner.

Although Rio de Janeiro state officials pledged to treat 80 percent of the sewage going into the bay when they made their bid to host the 2016 Olympics, “this target was imprecise, overly bold and unrealistic,” Andre Correa, Rio environmental secretary, told Bloomberg BNA.

Efforts to clean up the bay actually began years earlier. In 1994, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Rio de Janeiro state government committed $1.17 billion for what was to be a 13-year cleanup program. But that money allowed only a small percentage of the bay sewage to be treated and a subsequent pledge of $600 million has been slow to be allocated and barely made a dent in the bay's conditions.

‘Poorly Conceived.'

Today, only 51 percent of the sewage that ends up in the bay has been treated at all, Jorge Briard, president of the state water company Cedae, told Bloomberg BNA.

“The bay cleanup program was poorly conceived and its financial resources were mismanaged,” Adauri Souza, executive secretary of the Guanabara Bay Institute, an environmental group that advocates for the cleanup of the bay, told Bloomberg BNA.

Most of those resources were spent building five huge sewage treatment plants and sewer systems for some of the 15 cities that ring the bay. But the population of those cities has swelled from 8.5 million people when cleanup began, to 12 million today, escalating the sewage problem.

Most of the fecal contamination comes from shantytowns in cities whose raw sewage is dumped into 35 adjacent rivers that spew it into the estuary, turning it brackish and fetid.

‘Wrong Choice.'

“Rio state authorities wrongly decided that, because funds were insufficient to treat all the sewage going into the bay, that they would collect more sewage and treat it less thoroughly,” Grael, now deputy mayor of Niteroi, the second-largest city that rings the bay, told Bloomberg BNA.

Grael backed an alternate plan, which was rejected, that would have used the money to collect less sewage but treat it more thoroughly. “That wrong choice is the main reason the bay is still so polluted,” he said.

Correa put a different emphasis on the issue.

“The bay cleanup program was replete with planning errors,” he said. “Although the state didn't, given its limited funds, choose the best sewage treatment model, its biggest error was not synchronizing work-completion deadlines in contracts it signed with three types of companies: those building treatment plants, those installing sewer systems and those installing mains,” which are the wide-diameter pipelines that connect the plants to sewer systems.

Correa pointed to the mammoth sewage treatment plant in Sao Goncalo, a city of 1 million people on the bay. The plant was completed in 2001, but sewer mains and a system to carry the sewage were not finished until 2014. On the plus side, its primary sewage treatment can now remove 40 percent of organic matter. A secondary treatment scheduled to be working by the end of the year should remove 98 percent of organic matter.

Phase 2

The second phase of the bay cleanup program began in 2012, when the state government, having partially recovered from an insolvency, resumed the program with $150 million of its money and another $450 million Inter-American Development Bank loan. While slated to be completed by 2022, the second phase, which involves building another treatment plant and connecting existing plants to mains and sewer systems, is only 15 percent finished.

The Rio de Janeiro State Environmental Secretariat has been monitoring the water quality weekly along the Olympic sailing course and said it is adequate for bathing, based on World Health Organization standards. Correa said similar safe levels were found in monthly tests in 2014.

But Rodolfo Paranhos, a marine biology professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and part of a multi-university group that has been studying the bay for the past 20 years, questioned the tests.

“The monthly tests … in 2014 were too infrequent to tell if the bay water along the sailing course is safe for bathing because tests results can vary depending on conditions,” Paranhos told Bloomberg BNA. “If tests weren't done after heavy rains washed shantytown sewage into the bay, or when the tide was low and leaving it, which would concentrate the pollution along the race course, they would show lower-than-average coliform levels. But such ideal conditions might not be present during Olympic sailing events.”

Floating Debris

The state also has undertaken efforts to remove floating debris from the bay. Beginning in 2008, it contracted for 10 eco-barriers—plastic drums strung together by steel wires—across 10 rivers that account for 85 percent of the floating debris going into the bay. These barriers now catch 200 metric tons of junk a month.

More recently, companies contracted by the state replaced the plastic eco-barriers with stronger steel gratings that can catch far more floating debris, and strung seven more of them across other rivers emptying into the bay, Correa said.

Since 2014, the state also has paid a flotilla of 12 boats to collect 40 metric tons of floating debris a month, much of it garbage that made it past the eco-barriers.

“The combination of more and stronger eco-barriers and eco-boats make collisions between Olympic sailboats and floating debris unlikely, but not impossible,” Correa said.

IOC: ‘Proactive Measures.'

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) told Bloomberg BNA in a statement that “proactive measures—such as closing [illegal] landfills, reducing industrial pollution, increasing water treatment works and reducing floating waste—are being implemented to guarantee the water quality in the field of play areas of the bay and ensure that the athletes will be able to compete safely.”

Tania Braga, head of sustainability for the Organizing Committee of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, entrusted by the IOC to organize all operational aspects of the competition, also defended the water quality.

“In the days before the Olympic sailing event, as well as during the event, eco-boats will concentrate their collection of floating debris in the area of the bay where the sailing lanes are located to reduce the chance that such debris will interfere with the races,” Braga told Bloomberg BNA. “And we believe that the quality of bay water is adequate for the sailing competitions because they will occur in that part of the bay where there is lots of water exchange with the ocean.”

Rowing, Canoeing, Kayaking

The Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in the heart of Rio, where Olympic rowing, canoeing and kayaking competitions will be held, also receives sewage from rivers that flow into it, which scientists warn poses a health risk.

“My studies of the lagoon show that, although its water quality is far better than that of Guanabara Bay because aging and leaking sewage pipelines have been replaced in the last five years, Olympic rowers, canoers and kayakers also face health risks due to the lagoon's level of coliform bacteria,” David Zee, a professor of oceanography at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, told Bloomberg BNA.

In April 2015, after the city removed 53 tons of dead fish from the surface of the lagoon, it blamed the fish deaths on a sudden drop in water temperature, which it said caused fatal thermal shock.

Zee said it is more likely that heavy rains had swept more sewage than usual into a river that empties into the part of the lagoon where the dead fish were found.

Health of Athletes, Fans

Zee warns that both fans and athletes face health threats caused by contaminated lagoons surrounding the Olympic Park, site of 70 percent of the competitions and the nearby Olympic village, where athletes are housed.

Because these lagoons are much smaller and shallower than the bay, they are susceptible to heavily concentrated sewage from a western suburb of Rio, home to more than 500,000 people, where more than 70 percent of homes don't have sewage systems.

“Storm winds, which are strongest July and August, the height of the South American winter season, could churn up the fecal matter at the bottom of the lagoons and release hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas whose rotten-egg stench could cause fans and athletes to experience nausea, dizziness and headaches,” Zee told Bloomberg BNA.

“Athletes at the Pan-American games, held July of 2007 in the same lagoon-surrounded area, complained of these symptoms, caused by H2S [hydrogen sulfide] intoxication. But state officials have not honored their promise to dredge the lagoons as part of its bid to host the Olympics.”

In April, Brazilian athletes testing out a handball court in the Olympic Park also complained about the putrid odor of hydrogen sulfide gas being released by wind-churned waters.

“I was hit by the stench of the H2S gas while in a helicopter flying high above the lagoons. So you can imagine how it must have of affected athletes on the ground,” biologist Moscatelli told Bloomberg BNA. “The state has known about this for years and simply hoped strong winds wouldn't blow during the Olympics.”

Rain Forest to Golf Course

While water pollution and mosquito-borne Zika virus—which has hit the country hard, and has been linked to birth defects—have dominated health concerns for athletes and onlookers, environmental groups have blasted Brazil for another issue related to the Olympics.

Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century, and the Rio de Janeiro municipal government built a new course for the occasion. To do so, it cleared more than 250 acres of Atlantic Rain Forest owned by the city.

Ocupa Golfe, a movement that has staged protests at the site of the now finished course, said the deforested area “was home to more than 300 endangered species” and the golf course was built “even though Rio already has three golf courses, one of which offered the city government its premises for the Olympics.”

“Building this golf course, an area that will later probably be used to build high-priced condominiums, means losing a patch of Atlantic Rain Forest, full of endangered biodiversity, all because of one golf tournament,” Ocupa Golfe activist and biologist Marcello Mello told Bloomberg BNA.

Of course, the focus on environmental issues may not even be the biggest concern of Brazilian officials, in light of recent terror attacks worldwide.

The governor of Rio de Janeiro state issued a decree in June declaring a “state of public calamity” caused by a tax shortfall, that “compromises commitments assumed to host the Olympics.”

Conditions, the decree stated, could lead to “a total collapse [of] public security, health, education, transport and environmental management.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Kepp in Rio de Janeiro at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at ghenderson@bna.com

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