The Times, 28-03-1998
The Venetian lagoon faces the new peril of pollution and there are calls for a state of emergency to be declared over illnesses blamed on suburban plastics and petrochemical industries said to be discharging toxic waste
The murky secret
by Richard Owen
Venice is in peril but this time the threat to La Serenissima stems not from flooding and subsidence but from toxic, pollution and radioactivity.
Vincenzo Barbato, the prefect of the Venice region, this week urged Rome to declare a state of emergency after deaths and illness attributed to discharges from plastics and petrochemical plants in Venice's industrial suburbs. He said the waters of the lagoon had become poisoned by "intolerable quantities" of discharges. "We are facing a calamity .. . Fishing for mussels and clams must stop."
Massimo Cacciari, the Mayor re-elected in November, played down the reports. "There is no danger to residents or tourists. We know about the pollution levels, we don't need anyone to raise the alarm." He has overseen the restoration of Venice's churches and palaces, installed anti-flood defences and reversed decades of neglect by beginning to dredge canals. However, those city canals, remain murky and malodorous. This week 30 managers from the factories that dominate Porto Marghera, adjoining Venice, went on trial on charges of "manslaughter, environmental crimes and causing a disaster".
Together with the neighbouring suburb of Mestre, Marghera treats arid stores 1.2 million tonnes of dangerous products a year, just two miles from the Grand Canal. Over the past 30 years, according to Fabrizio Fabbri of Greenpeace, the factories have "dumped 80 million cubic metres of industrial waste into the lagoon". The accused factory managers - from Enichem, Montedison arid other major Italian petrochemical firms - each face 15 years in jail if found guilty. Around 150 workers at Marghera have died of cancer, mainly of the liver, since 1973. Another 600 are ill with ulcers and tumours. Relatives are seeking damages. The prosecutions arise from a private legal action by Gabriele Bortolozzo, who worked in a factory making plastic bottles and children's toys. When he brought his case, Signor Bortolozzo said there was no protection on the assembly line "and the management treated us like meat at the butchers". He retired early because of ill health in the 1980s and began a ten-year campaign to prove the Marghera factories were responsible for death and other illness, compiling a thick dossier of medical and other evidence from workers' families. Signor Bortolozzo died two years ago aged 59. not of cancer, but when his bicycle was struck by a lorry. However, he had already handed the dossier of 1,600 cases to Felice Casson, the Venice investigating magistrate, who said: "It seems the petrochemical firms can find money for bribes but not for safety measures."
Luca Ramacci, another investigating magistrate, said that a 1995 report by Greenpeace called Death in Venice - about the contamination of water, mud and marine life had never been acted on by the authorities. He and Signor Casson have identified 18 illegal industrial discharges with the help of the Venice Water Authority. Signor Fabbri said that "a single clam frdm Venetian waters contains ten times more dioxin than the maximum allowed in the United States".
Gianfranco Bettin, the deputy mayor and a leading environmental campaigner, said pesticides were also washed into the lagoon from farmland. "The trouble is it will cost a fortune to clean Venice up -and who is to pay?" Enichem and other companies under fire deny the charges saying they "invest in environmental protection".
The Government in Rome has vowed to eliminate discharges of "toxic and bioaccumulatie compounds" by 2005. But Signor Bettin suggests a referendum on whether Marghera should be closed down. He faces vociferous opposition from local trades unions, who argue that Venice "desperately needs the jobs" Marghera provides.
Signor Bettin has just published a book Petrolkimiko, written with the environmentalist Nicoletta Benatelli, in which he recounts interviews with the families of three Marghera workers who died of liver cancer.
Anna, the daughter of a worker called Rocco said her father had become listless but bad refused to go to the doctor because he was "terrified of what he might find". He died shortly before retirement. "My father was sacrificed on the altar of the multinationals. He and the others were robbed of a serene old age. That I can never forgive."