Open pits in the south

Rio Grande do Sul holds 85 percent of Brazil's coal reserves Rio Grande do Sul holds 85 percent of Brazil's coal reserves. Photo: Vinícius Fontana

A project to open the largest coal mine in Brazil has split the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. The endeavor, called the Guaíba mine after a nearby lake, is celebrated by some as an important support for regional development and tax revenue. Copelmi, the company responsible for the project and which will own the rights to exploit coal for an estimated 23 years, says that the mine will create 4.5 thousand jobs.

On the other hand, specialists, environmentalists, and public prosecutors are concerned about the extent of possible negative impacts on the environment and surrounding communities. 

</p> <p>According to the outlines of the project, the open-cast coal mine will be located inside the metropolitan area of state capital Porto Alegre, home to over four million people, and just 16 kilometers from the city center. The endeavor requires approval from the State Foundation for Environmental Protection (Fepam) and no date has been set for a decision. “The case needs precise analysis. We have 12 months to give a preliminary permit, and the process is stalled due to the need for additional information,” said Fepam, in a statement.</p> <p>The mine will sit on the edge of the Delta do Jacuí Park, an environmental protection area which is crucial to enhance Porto Alegre’s water quality and protect species of different biomes: the Pampas and Atlantic Forest, two Brazilian ecosystems which have lost much of their original territory.</p> <p>Seventy-six families from two different communities will also be relocated to make way for the open-pit mine. Most of them are sustainable smallholder farmers; what will happen to them after the coal mine is built remains uncertain.</p> <h2>Coal mining back to the spotlight </h2> <p>Under the radar in recent decades, the coal <a href="">mining sector</a> has resurfaced in the last three years, especially after the Rio Grande do Sul government approved a bill creating a “carbon hub” to support new coal industry enterprises.</p> <p>Coal mining is a strategic sector, and for the Rio Grande do Sul state it has been seen as a solution in the short-term for many problems. The state produces only 40 percent of its own energy, which is a backstop in plans to expand its industrial infrastructure.&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides, the state struggles with its own financial crisis. Debts peaked last year, with the state deficit 2.3 times higher than net income. According to Copelmi, the coal mine will generate around BRL 218 million per year in tax alone, a welcome relief to government coffers.</p> <h2>A divided community</h2> <p>In order to obtain its license, the Guaíba mine project must first be debated among the surrounding community. Initially, Copelmi only scheduled a public hearing with the population of the local town of Eldorado do Sul, but further hearings have been set up due to the potential extent of environmental impacts. The most recent of these meetings took place in the Rio Grande do Sul state legislature on September 30. Mostly protesters attended the event, but applause supporting the project was also heard.</p> <p>During the hearing, Cristiano Weber, Copelmi’s sustainability manager, said that “after Brumadinho [the January dam disaster in Minas Gerais which killed at least 251 people] much misleading information has been spread. People who don’t know anything about the subject are giving baseless opinions. For instance, they say it could cause acid rain, but that only happens with the liberation of gases, which doesn’t happen in the mine.”</p> <p>However, according to Rualdo Menegat, a geoscientist from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, the studies presented by the company are lacking in mineral analysis. “Coal is like a chemical trash bin, holding more than 76 elements, including heavy metals. The analysis is needed to set strategies to contain these metals and the acid rain that comes out of the mines. If one doesn’t know the chemicals that make up the coal, then you are working with an unknown reality,” he said. Invited by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> to comment on criticisms of the project, Copelmi has not replied until the publication of this article.</p> <h2>Possible environmental impacts</h2> <p>The alerts are focused especially on the impacts that coal mining could cause to the water supply of the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre. Despite the company’s claims that there is no risk of contamination, Mr. Menegat says that if an accident happens, it will be impossible to stop the spill from reaching the city.</p> <p>Besides, it is estimated that the coal mine will produce 416 kilograms of particulate matter (PM) per hour—about 3,500 tons per year—including “fine dust”, considered the most dangerous to human health. That is 70 percent of all PM emitted by the 15 million vehicles in São Paulo state in 2016, which added up to about 5,000 tons.&nbsp;</p> <p>To Mr. Menegat, it is impossible to mine coal so close to the city and environmentally sensitive areas. “This enterprise offers great risks, it irreparably harms underground waters and biologically important areas. The location is not ideal. There are people living there, over the coal mine and in nearby cities. We have no doubts about the impacts of this project,” he said.

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Vinicius Fontana

Vinicius is a freelance journalist, and has been published by several news outlets, such as Euronews, Mongabay, Deutsche Welle, Diálogo Chino, and National Geographic Brazil.