Pollution is destroying the environment and livelihood for residents in this Cuban city

A horse-drawn carriage at sunset on the streets of Cienfuegos, Cuba, on Thursday, September 8, 2016.
A horse-drawn carriage at sunset on the streets of Cienfuegos, Cuba, on Thursday, September 8, 2016.

A crab covered in oil raises its claws as its crawls slowly through the mangroves in the bay of Cienfuegos in south central Cuba. Pelicans with black stains linger on the ground.

“After the oil spill from the refinery, I can't fish in the bay anymore,” said Eddy Alberto, a young man from the Reina neighborhood on the outskirts of Cienfuegos.

Last month, the rain-swollen Damuji River broke its banks near the Camilo Cienfuegos Refinery, flooding containment pools for contaminated water and sweeping about 12,000 cubic meters of oil and water into the bay. The several rivers that flow into the bay, strengthened by Subtropical Storm Alberto's rains, pushed the oil slicks to more than 70 percent of the bay. Experts with the government-owned Cuba Petroleos estimated the costs of recovery at $1 million.

Local fishermen don't expect they'll be getting any help.

“It's not the first time they contaminate the bay. We live from fishing, and no one is going to compensate us for that,” said Alberto, 30, who has now turned to cutting grass to support his family. He sells the grass to drivers of horse-drawn carts for 15 pesos per sack.

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Tires, plastic and trash destroy the mangroves on the shores of the bay of Cienfuegos. 14ymedio

Environmental disasters on the bay have been happening for years.

An oil spill in 1986 caused severe contamination, and the cleanup work lasted for five months. In 2001, a spill of arsenic from a fertilizer plant alarmed area residents and led the government to ban all fishing. The government said nothing about the arsenic spill until 2013, when Reinaldo Acosta Milán, an official with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, told the local Radio Ciudad del Mar that the bay waters were safe because the arsenic had dropped into the bay's sediments.

Acosta Milán also acknowledged that among the species studied by his group, the shrimp and other shellfish from the area had shown elevated levels of arsenic, and that their sustained consumption by humans could be harmful to their health. Many fishermen nevertheless continued the clandestine catch and sale of shellfish.

The trade continues today.

Like Alberto, many residents of his neighborhood — known as “100 Casitas” because of the little homes that were built by the government for families left homeless by Hurricane Lili in 2002 — fish illegally and sell their catch.

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The presence of trash, decomposing animals and sewage from the city is common at the mouth of a river, which feeds into the bay of Cienfuegos. 14ymedio

“We're not hurting anyone. We live day to day from what we catch in the sea,” said one of Alberto's friends, who sells oysters and breaded fish sandwiches. The man, who declined to give his name, said he used to catch shrimp but the shellfish have become increasingly rare where he fishes in the north part of the bay.

A report about Cienfuegos in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Program complained that large-scale industrialization during the decades of Soviet Union influence over Cuba was principally to blame for the bay's environmental problems. The report said the sediments in the bay were the second most contaminated in Cuba, after the port of Havana.

During the 1980s “the Nitrogenated Fertilizers Company alone added 9.7 tons of nitrogen per day” to the bay, the report said. During that same period, an average of 694 ships sailed into Cienfuegos port each year, dumping 93.5 tons of garbage and more than 5,657 tons of oily waters into the bay, according to the report.

The flow of water around the bay is usually slow, and experts estimate that it takes from 39 to 59 days to totally renew the water in the bay. The use of fertilizers and other chemicals near the rivers that flow into the bay also contribute to the environmental problems, the report added. Sugar mills along the Damuji and Caunao Rivers, and the Damuji Paper Mill were cited among the key polluters.

The U.N. investigators reported that white shrimp, a symbol of the city and along with pink shrimp the bay's principal catch for fishermen, had disappeared from the northwestern sector of the bay.

“In general, the last decades showed signs of environmental deterioration, with a reduction in biodiversity ... reduction in the size and catch of commercial species, erosion and deterioration of the landscape along the coast,” the U.N. report concluded.


Arianna García Chamero, who works at the Cienfuegos Center for Environmental Studies, set off alarms when local researchers reported finding microplastics in the bay.

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Workers of Cuba Petróleo are trying to reverse the environmental damage caused by the oily water spill at the bay of Cienfuegos. 14ymedio

Microplastics account for an estimated 85 percent of the pollution in salt waters. Plastic bags, wrappings and similar garbage wind up in the ocean and are digested by fish that in turn are eaten by humans.

“I was impressed by the fact that the levels [of microplastics] are sometimes similar, and sometimes even higher, to the levels shown by studies in highly industrialized places,” García Chamero told local journalists early this year. She added that ingesting the microplastics and the heavy metals that often accompany them can be harmful to human health and even lead to diseases such as cancer.

Waste waters and garbage

Alejandro Sánchez, who lives in the historic center of Cienfuegos, likes to take advantage of the afternoon breeze to take his girlfriend to the main dock, the Muelle Real, to watch the sunset. Although the bay waters don't always display the sparkling hues of turquoise, the 23-year-old still considers the view among the most beautiful places in the world.

“I'm only sorry because of the contamination,” he said as he sipped a piña colada cocktail at a bar just feet from the dock. “They designed this place for tourism, but they did not count on the stench.”

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Researchers in the city have detected the presence of microplastic in the waters of the bay. This, together with heavy metals ingested by fish, can be harmful once they are consumed by humans. 14ymedio

The Muelle Real and other parts of the historic center have been restored since parts of the city were proclaimed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Center in 2005. Tourism has increased, and Cienfuegos has become a regular stop on any trip to the nearby colonial-era town of Trinidad.

But the stench that Sánchez referred to comes from a sewage pipe that empties near the Muelle Real. The city's entire sewage system, build more 100 years ago, flows untreated into the bay.

“The waters near the city show the highest concentrations of fecal coliforms in the bay,” according to several environmental experts, although they are below the norm along the beach areas.

Sánchez said he's heard talk about the dangers of the contaminated bay waters, but people “don't care about that. You can see plastics, garbage, dead animals and debris everywhere. There's a shortage of garbage disposal places, so people throw it directly into the ocean. It's something very sad,” he said.