Brazilian universities to help clean up sewage-strewn Olympic waterway

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao signed a deal Monday with several Brazilian universities and research institutes to develop a plan for cleaning up the polluted waters of the city's sewage-strewn Guanabara Bay, where Olympic sailing events will be held.

Pezao hailed the deal as a "very important step" toward the long-promised cleanup, which has dragged on for more than 20 years with little progress.

As part of Brazil's Olympic project, authorities pledged more than six years ago to drastically cut the amount of raw human sewage in the bay before the 2016 games. But only one of the eight promised treatment plants aimed at filtering much of the waste out of the rivers that have become open-air sewage ditches has been built, and the bay's once-crystalline waters remain fetid.

An Associated Press investigation published last week revealed high counts of disease-causing viruses directly linked to human sewage in Olympic waters.

In a statement from his office, Pezao was quoted as saying that since Rio won its Olympic bid in 2009, the city has boosted the treatment of sewage that once flowed into the bay from 17 percent to 49 percent. The original promise was to treat 80 percent of sewage that ends up in the bay by the 2016 Games, but state and municipal officials have repeatedly acknowledged there's no way that pledge will be met.

Internet portal UOL quoted Pezao as saying, "we made a mistake. We can't continue to make more mistakes." He added that the government wouldn't commit to any further cleanup targets before the necessary studies had been done, the UOL report said.

It also quoted Rogerio Vale, who was representing Rio's federal university at Monday's signing event, as saying, "We're working toward a gradual plan and a long-term recuperation of the bay.

"We're talking about 20 years. The bay can be in good shape in 2025, 2030 or even 2035."

Seven universities -- six of them public institutions -- as well as several research institutes will develop the new cleanup plan.