Workers at the site owned by Enichem, Montedison and two other private firms are thought to have developed cancer as a result of prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride - the basic building block of PVC plastic - and other toxic substances. The plant was shut down by police on Thursday.
The plant's 68 managers are accused of mass manslaughter and involuntary environmental disaster for failing to take precautionary measures to safeguard employees' health. The first cases of illness were reported there 20 years ago.
Fears are now surfacing that emissions from the plant may have affected surrounding residents as well as employees. At the request of the local authority, Italy's environment minister Willer Bordon has convened an urgent meeting set for 17 November over the question of environmental monitoring in the entire Brindisi area.
The environment ministry and environmental groups Legambiente and WWF have said they will take part in an eventual criminal lawsuit against the plant owners that could result in even larger damages than those awarded to employees at the Porto Marghera industrial complex near Venice. Some 320 individuals shared euros 32.7m (IL63.3bn) in this case.
Citing World Health Organisation data, Legambiente points out that tumour rates in the industrial areas of Brindisi are a record 48% higher than the regional average, the greatest excess seen in any part of Italy. Other industrial areas in the south and also in the centre-north also present tumour rates way above the regional average, notably Crotone (+46%), Taranto (+22%) and Massa Carrara (+21%). As many as 11 million Italians are at risk, Legambiente says.
The association has called for decontamination of the entire area, inspection of all its industrial plants, epidemiological screening of all individuals who have worked at the plant, and closure of all facilities found to pose environmental and health hazards. Adequate controls and environmental impact analysis were not been carried out at the plant, despite warning the signals sent out over decades, Legambiente said.
They held a protest at the factory gates on Tuesday.
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