A strange red-tinged film that appeared on the surface of the sea near the city of Syracuse in Sicily in September, 2001, was the tip-off. It took more than a year to piece together the evidence, but the smeary film led to the arrest on Jan. 16 of 18 top managers at Italian petrochemical giant EniChem. They're charged with illegal disposal of toxic waste and criminal association -- a signal that law enforcement officials are finally starting to crack down on decades of environmental abuse by industry.
The pollution from alleged illegal waste dumping by EniChem's Sicily plant in Priolo (near Syracuse) is appalling, even for Italy, a country with notorious cases of industrial neglect in the disposal of hazardous. Prosecutors say EniChem had been routinely dumping highly toxic chemical wastes directly into sewers that drained into the sea. The mysterious red film was sulfuric acid, a petrochemical residue. And levels of highly lethal mercury in the sea water near the plant was 20,000 (yes, twenty-thousand) times greater than the legal limit. Waste from the plant, say investigators, was being disposed of as nonindustrial material, saving EniChem millions of dollars in disposal costs.
UNINTIMIDATED. Sicilian magistrates and police moved after investigating the company's waste disposal operations for a year. A local citizens' committee, frightened by the discoloration of the coastal waters, launched the initial alarm, and magistrates went to work taking water samples. Even that effort failed to intimidate EniChem managers. "They continued to dump in front of us, even while we were surveying on site," says Syracuse magistrate Maurizio Musco. "They operated with the impunity of someone who doesn't believe they will be punished."
Of the 18 arrested, 8 EniChem executives are being held in prison, while the other 10 are under house arrest. Those charged include the plant director and vice-director, and a local official responsible for environmental controls.
To date, few Italian managers have faced prosecution for catastrophic environmental pollution, since it isn't covered in Italy's criminal code. Prosecutors must convince a judge that extreme environmental damage can be considered a crime under a more general category of instigating disasters -- such as a train crash. Environmentalists say the case is alarming evidence of Italy's dismal state of environmental safety and that laws must be strengthened. "These arrests won't usher in changes in the situation, however, if they aren't linked to political action," says Fabrizio Fabbri, scientific director of Greenpeace.
ALARMING TUMOR RATES. EniChem is one of several chemical plants in Sicily under attack by locals and environmental groups for heavily polluting a stretch of the island's Mediterranean coastline. The industrial zone running from Augusta to Syracuse (which includes Priolo) already was declared a high-risk area by the Environmental Ministry in 1990. But factories there continue to produce approximately 170,000 tons of waste per year, 1,300 of which are classified as highly toxic.
Based on information from local hospitals, the prosecutor's office in Augusta will be studying the connection between elevated levels of disease and the chemical pollutants found on site. Already, a 1990-94 World Health Organization study found that among residents in six towns within 39 kilometers of the Augusta-Priolo area, male deaths due to tumors was 10% higher than the regional average. In particular, lung tumors were 20% higher.
Despite this and other alarming information, state authorities have never ordered a thorough epidemiological study of the area. The EniChem damage, "though it has just hit the news now with the arrests, goes back a long way. However, no one talked about it," says Anecleto Busa, a chemist who has consulted to a parliamental commission on waste-trafficking. "In fact, it is a story full of coverups, unfortunately, even by authorities."
Greenpeace points out that code modifications declassifying some categories of waste introduced by the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi in a current draft law on waste management would violate at least 10 EU directives. "This government is trying to solve the waste problem by renaming it," says Fabbri. The European Commission has also flagged the illegality of Italy's effort at redefining waste and is preparing infraction proceedings. Italians can only wonder how many more toxic nightmares will turn up in the meantime. By Gail Edmondson in Rome