Posted on November 30, 2022
The bay that surrounds the southeastern Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro has become a graveyard of abandoned ships, posing a threat to the environment and creating risks for navigation.
Abandoned ships and the metal tips of the hulls of sunken vessels are visible in different parts of the 412-square-kilometer (160-square-mile) Guanabara Bay, which is known globally for the picturesque Sugarloaf Mountain at its mouth.
But the gravity of the situation only came to light a fortnight ago, when one large ship that was adrift hit a pillar of the 13-kilometer (eight-mile) bridge linking the cities of Rio and Niteroi.
Traffic on the bridge, which is used by 15,000 motorists per day and has 72-meter-high (236-foot-high) pillars, was immediately suspended while inspectors verified that no serious damage had occurred.
Different government agencies have been blaming one another for the problem, while some entities plead ignorance even though the non-governmental conservation organization Baia Viva (Living Bay) began denouncing the situation at least three decades ago.
“There’s a generalized lack of responsibility,” Baia Viva Director Sergio Ricardo Verde Potiguara said in an interview with Efe.
None of these entities knows the number of abandoned or partially sunken vessels in the bay and it is not clear what materials they have inside nor the safety risk they pose,” he said, adding that there also is no removal plan in place.
“Only after the collision with the bridge did it become known that this bulk carrier still has 50,000 liters of fuel in its tanks even though it had been anchored for six years,” the environmental activist said, adding that Baia Viva had inspected the vessel in 2020 and alerted the authorities that same year about the risk of it breaking loose from its moorings.
Baia Viva said a partial inventory conducted in 2002 by Rio de Janeiro’s state environmental authority (INEA) identified between 200 and 250 abandoned vessels, 30 percent of which are made of wood, a material particularly susceptible to spills.
Most of these vessels are located in the so-called São Lourenço channel in Niteroi, but there are also dozens in the vicinity of the Port of Rio de Janeiro and Ilha do Governador, the largest island in the bay and the site of Rio’s international airport.
Abandoned ships also cause economic harm to fishing communities, Baia Viva’s director said.
“The abandonment of Niteroi’s Public Fishing Terminal is a scandal. That infrastructure was long demanded by fishermen and was inaugurated in 2013 after 10 million reais (about $2 million) was invested,” Potiguara said, adding that it never entered into operation because the ships cannot access the São Lourenço channel due to the ship graveyard.
Baia Viva says the removal of old ships is required under an international treaty and Brazilian law and is a shared responsibility of the Port Captaincy, a unit of Brazil’s navy; the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources; and INEA.
“The three should act jointly, but they don’t because they say it’s the others’ responsibility,” he says.
The ships’ owners also are responsible, according to Potiguara, although he noted that in most instances it is impossible to identify them because they are companies or shipyards that went bankrupt.
He added that Baia Viva and the Attorney General’s Office will file a lawsuit demanding that the three responsible bodies conduct an inventory and elaborate a concrete plan for remedying the problem.