Brazil Probing Fraud at Olympic Sailing Bay Sewage Plants

Updated on
  • Rio de Janeiro will fail to make good on its water pledge
  • Directors of utility Cedae could be held responsible

Dark sand stands as tidal water recede from a beach in which sewage spills into the waters of Guanabara bay in Rio de Janeiro, Feb. 13, 2016.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

Federal police are investigating Rio de Janeiro’s state-run utility Cedae for allegations of fraud at its sewage treatment plants around the Guanabara Bay that will feature sailing competitions in the Summer Olympics, officials said.

Fifty-six federal police officers on Thursday carried out eight search and seizure operations in at least six sewage treatment centers, five of which are located around the bay. The actions were part of a yearlong probe that is targeting the water and sewage utility for pollution and possibly charging for services it isn’t adequately providing, which if proven would constitute fraud, Marcelo Prudente, the officer presiding over the investigation, told reporters in Rio.

QuickTake Brazil's Highs and Lows

Cedae’s press office denied it had unfairly charged customers, adding it has increased investments over the past decade. The utility is fully willing to cooperate with authorities, it said.

Meanwhile the city is preparing to host the Olympics in four months. While construction of competition venues is nearly complete, Rio state has drawn fire for its failure to treat sewage to the extent promised when it won hosting rights in 2009. The bay is one of the most prominent features of Rio’s world-famous landscape, stretching toward the horizon in postcards of Sugarloaf mountain and the Christ the Redeemer statue.

Pollution, Fraud

Federal police will analyze samples taken from the Alegria, Pavuna, Penha, Sao Goncalo, Sarapui, and Barra da Tijuca sewage treatment plants in the coming weeks, according to Prudente. If inadequate treatment is proven, it can imply two crimes: pollution and fraud.

“Environmental crime law dictates the company is responsible, but as a general rule it is the people who are held responsible, its directors,” Prudente said.

Rio will fail to make good on its pledge to treat 80 percent of sewage by the time the Olympics start. In 2007, 11 percent of sewage was treated in the area for which Cedae is responsible, and the company has since increased that to 51 percent, Cedae President Jorge Briard said last month. Reaching 75 to 80 percent treatment is “very feasible” in about five years, he said.

Some critics, including sanitation expert Stelberto Soares, question how much of Rio’s sewage currently receives treatment. Soares, who coordinates the sanitation work group for Brazil’s Engineering Club, based in Rio, estimates the total is actually between 20 and 30 percent.

Launch Point

“I’ve detected smaller stations not working full-time, and at night pumping effluent into the rivers, the ocean or lagoons without treatment,” said Soares, a former Cedae employee. “That has happened and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are doing that.”

On Thursday, Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes inaugurated the launch point for Olympic sailors at a marina where sewage is currently dumping into the bay. Paes said Cedae will complete a project to end the influx at the site in a little over a week, according to local media reports.

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