By Karen Shishiptorova, Contributing Reporter

Lagoa Wildlife, photo by Lagoa Limpa Project - EBX Group.
Lagoa Wildlife, photo by Lagoa Limpa Project - EBX Group.

RIO DE JANEIRO – In the 70s, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lake – in the heart of Zona Sul – was just another locale among thousands worldwide to undergo a steady path to decay. A victim of unplanned growth, the lake became so unmanageable that in 1970, Governor Negrão de Lima considered landfilling it completely.

Problems included mosquito infestation and fish mortality, producing a horrid foul odor. Between 2001 and 2002, the city removed nearly 300 tons of dead fish from the lake. Mortality records date back to 1854, however the situation became critical in the late 90s.

For decades it received tons of sewage along with runoff from animal waste. Health problems due to high levels of fecal coliforms include ear infections, dysentery, typhoid fever, viral and bacterial gastroenteritis and hepatitis A. In 2005, experts from UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) found quantities of carcinogenic substances four times higher than acceptable international levels. Such substances may also cause neurodegenerative diseases and fish death. Attributed to the gas stations around the lake, according to Chemical Engineer José Roberto de Souza Araújo, storage tanks improperly installed can leak and contaminate the water table.

Mario Moscatelli, a biologist concerned with the problem since 1989, offered, “It´s quite simple: Just stop dumping garbage and sewage in the lake and it will heal.” However, a fisherman who wished to remain anonymous presented another factor to the equation: “The big problem is fresh water flowing in. It unbalances the salt water system.”

Residue cleanup, photo by Lagoa Limpa Project - EBX Group.
Residue cleanup, photo by Lagoa Limpa Project - EBX Group.

Fish mortality raised a massive public outcry and in 2001 the problem was properly addressed. Cedae – a state waterworks and sewage company – started to locate illegal sewage spills and devise a plan to renew the lake´s drainage system, including the construction of sewage pumping stations to collect and send waste to the ocean.

In 2008, the endeavor gained a new ally. Eike Batista, president of the EBX Business Group, made a personal commitment to aid in the clean-up effort, announcing a R$30 Million investment to restore the area within 30 months. The private-public investment is headed by Paulo Farag – a biologist from EBX. Sergio Cabral, the Governor of Rio de Janeiro, and Eduardo Paes, the City Mayor, are also key players.

Called Lagoa Limpa (Clean Lake), the initiative saw a R$500,000 budget phase with the recent launch of a small robot akin to a remote control car. The gizmo is principally concerned with looking for any abnormalities that might jeopardize water quality, while also filming the entire system.

Thanks to clean-up efforts, pollution from fecal coliforms is down from 16,000 per 100 milliliters in 2006 to an average of 1,000 per 100 milliliters today, which, according to the Conselho Nacional do Meio Ambiente (Conama – National Environment Counsel) is a level considered safe for swimming.

In his blog, Mr. Batista states, “By the second semester of 2010 we will have the lake as Tom Jobim would like to have seen it!”

The EBX Group endeavor is being documented by photographer Marcos Terra Nova from Canal V Productions and a book is also in the works.

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