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Pollution in Rio's beaches, bay poses Olympic clean-up challenges
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) ' Oceanographer Vinicius Palermo reaches into Guanabara Bay with a hand-held net, scooping another soggy load of candy wrappers, soda bottles and shredded plastic bags.
His specially outfitted boat filters as much as 180 pounds of garbage daily from this enormous bay, including rusting refrigerators and dead sea turtles tangled in fishing line. All this in the waters that will host the Olympic sailing competition in 2016.
Decades of neglect and unplanned growth have long caused foul beaches and health hazards for local residents, but now officials are struggling to clean it up before the global spotlight hits Brazil with the world's two biggest sporting events, the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Only 33 percent of Rio's wastewater is treated, and many of the 19 rivers that empty into the bay run rank with sewage. Recent efforts have improved conditions, but politicians acknowledge it will take many years and millions of dollars to restore the bay, which is on the other side of Sugarloaf mountain from renowned beaches such as Copacabana.
"If the games were today, we'd be offering the worst Olympic lanes in history," said Axel Grael, the former head of the state environmental agency and current president of an environmental cleanup and education program called Projeto Grael. The program includes the "Clean Waters" effort headed by Palermo.
"No other (Olympic) place has been as dirty as this is now," Grael said. "If one of these boats, during the competition, were to get tangled in plastic, it would be a real embarrassment for the bay and for the city."
Pollution also fouls lakes and beaches that will stage other events during the 2016 Games.
Rodrigo de Freitas lake, which will host the Olympic rowing and canoeing competitions, has suffered massive fish kills in recent years when the water quality dropped. Copacabana Beach, where marathon swimmers and triathletes will compete, is occasionally unfit for swimming. Heavy rains regularly cause sewage overflows that leave long, black streaks on Rio's white-sand beaches.
Governments are increasing efforts to treat the sewage that fouls Rio's lakes and beaches, and there are at least fish now in Rodrigo de Freitas lake, even if their levels of heavy metals make them inedible.
And the stench that once wafted from Guanabara Bay in a rude welcome to visitors arriving at Rio's international airport is much improved.
Cleaning up Guanabara, which covers 148 square miles (383 square kilometers), remains the biggest challenge.
Athletes who hope to compete in the sailing event have been disappointed after inspecting conditions in the bay, said Grael. His siblings, Lars and Torben, are Olympic medalist sailors who refined their skills in Guanabara.
When the World Military Games were held there in July, Palermo and his crew did a week of emergency cleanup, hauling out half a ton of floating trash so it wouldn't ensnare a boat and cost an athlete a medal.
But Palermo's nets are no match for the trash produced by the 10 million people who cluster along Guanabara's shores. Spotty garbage collection means trash gets flushed out to the bay with every storm.
Waste from shipyards, two oil refineries, two commercial ports and one of the world's largest dumps also escapes into the bay that opens beyond the iconic granite facade of Rio's Sugarloaf mountain.
Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, have grudgingly learned to live with the filth. Before hitting the beach, they regularly check the newspapers for daily updates on the sanitary conditions even at Copacabana, which face the Atlantic Ocean. A survey last year by the city's Department of the Environment showed E. coli bacteria counts made stretches of sand on Ipanema Beach unsafe for recreation.
The water lapping at beaches along the bay has been considered unsafe for years. Those who live in cities farther along Guanabara face far more serious health hazards due to sewage that runs in open ditches.
"Our goal is the go from treating 30 percent of sewage to treating 65 percent by 2014, but sewage is only one aspect of the problem," said state environmental secretary Carlos Minc. "We have several initiatives to guarantee a clean bay for the World Cup and the Olympics."
Recent efforts have improved conditions. A program funded by international banks and supplemented with state funds built waste treatment plants along Guanabara. Much of the rotting food and other organic matter that had flowed unimpeded into the water was blocked by improvements to the Gramacho Municipal Landfill. One of the world's largest dumps, it is built on unstable, ecologically sensitive marshland bordering the bay. Agreements with refineries and shipyards operating in the area have significantly reduced the heavy metals and other industrial pollutants entering the system.
Minc's office is now launching a program to establish regular trash pickup and sewage connections in long-neglected shantytowns that now pollute the bay.
Palermo says he wonders if the political good will can last beyond the Olympics to better the lives of residents.
"Yes, there are clear improvements, but you also have 50 years of unplanned growth that wasn't accompanied by any infrastructure," he said. "You have years, decades, of impact, and now they're saying they're going to solve this in four years? I just don't think that's realistic."
Even the recent gains have been marred by poor planning and a lack of coordination among agencies.
Officials built several waste treatment plants along the bay starting in 1992, but failed until recently to build the sewage systems meant to serve four of them, said Gelson Serva, coordinator of a government environmental sanitation program known by its acronym PSAM.
Even now, the biggest plant, Alegria, or "Happiness" in Portuguese, is operating at one-third of its intended capacity. Three others are treating about one-fifteenth of what they can handle.
Serva is heading a $650 million program to plug those gaps with new or refurbished sewage lines and treatment plants, and he says he is guardedly optimistic.
"The challenge is huge, and the effort will be great," he said. "The improvement will be gradual. By the Olympics, we'll be feeling the improvement, but the real effect will come in 10 years or so."