Italian environmentalists and relatives protest ruling over PVC plant deaths

Environmentalists and relatives of 157 workers poisoned at a petrochemicals plant near Venice are outraged over a court ruling that absolves managers of the state-owned petrochemicals company of manslaughter, the UK newspaper The Independent has reported.

The workers at the Porto Marghera plant, just outside Venice and also the site of a serious chemicals spillage (see related story), died over the past 20 years from exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), used to make plastics, while 100 workers suffered serious illnesses. The verdict on 2 November, after a three-year trial, outraged the dead workers’ families and environmental campaigners, who protested by occupying the judge’s bench. “Injustice has been done- It’s absurd that such a major crime has not been considered as such,” commented Ermete Realacci, President of Italy’s largest environmental NGO, Legambiente.

Venice City Council has also said it would appeal against the findings of the case, which was considered historic because for the first time leading managers were in court not only for the deaths of employees but for the damage caused to the Venice lagoon. The case has also prompted similar inquiries and trials concerning suspect deaths at other industrial plants (see related story).

The trial cleared 28 senior staff from the chemical firm ENIChem and its subsidiaries, ruling that the dangers of VCM were not proved until after the workers fell ill. The judge said the deaths were linked to exposure in the 1950s and 1960s, before VCM’s toxicity was ascertained and that after 1973, when dangers became clear, ENI reduced workers’ exposure to within the legal limits of the time, though these were inadequate.

The public prosecutor Felice Casson, who had demanded sentences of up to 12 years, said management had not protected the employees, even though it had been aware of the danger. He said from the late Sixties there were close contacts between all European chemical companies because of the growing awareness that the discovery of health risks from VCM could jeopardise the industry, but at Port Marghera, workers who complained to in-house doctors were simply told to drink less alcohol. The majority of the workers died from severe liver damage and leukaemia.

Although Venice is appealing against the verdict, the state, also an injured party for alleged environmental damage, will not. The government signed a deal with Montedison Chemicals, one of the companies at Port Marghera, two days before the verdict, whereby the company pledged to pay 525 billion lire (£169 million) to clean nine of the most polluted areas of the lagoon.

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