Italian chemicals firms on trial for homicide

Vinyl chloride manufacture around Venice lagoon killed over 100 workers, says prosecutor

Some of Italy's biggest chemical firms will appear in court tomorrow when the country's first trial for alleged mass killings of workers and environmental damage caused by industry resumes in Venice.

Some 27 managers in Eni, Montedison and several other large companies with manufacturing facilities in the Porto Marghera industrial estate on the Venice lagoon are charged with "culpable homicide" following allegations that poor controls and resultant pollution over several decades led to the deaths of 117 workers and irreversible environmental damage to the lagoon.

The case, which is being brought by sick former factory workers and relatives of alleged victims and started in early 1997, is described by public prosecutor Felice Casson as "historic". If the plaintiffs eventually win, it would be the first time in Italy that job-related deaths on such a scale were judged to have been a predictable result of negligent behaviour on the part of companies. Mr Casson is once famously reported to have said that workers at Porto Marghera were "used as slaughter meat".

Health problems related to the production of vinyl chloride monomer at Porto Marghera emerged in the mid-seventies, but serious effects on workers came to light only in the early 1980s, when an unusually high number of cancer cases was reported in the area. Compensation was paid to victims, but no decisive action was taken.

Interviewed by ENDS Daily, a former official of Marghera municipality with a close knowledge of the health and safety practices of companies operating at Porto Marghera, said that more should have been done but wasn't.

"Local administrators were reluctant to make a fuss about it, and the unions were afraid employment levels might suffer," the source said. The result, he told ENDS Daily was that hundreds of workers had been harmed, enormous damage had been done to the environment, and the local chemical industry had still not flourished, losing 4,000 jobs over the last 15 years.

Statistics on pollution levels of the Venice lagoon reveal high concentrations of dioxins, pesticides and other dangerous pollutants, including metals like copper and lead. Local and regional authorities in the area as well as some of Italy's main environmental groups have requested to file as plaintiffs in the case. A decision on this is expected tomorrow.

Follow Up:
Eni: +39 6 59821; Montedison: +39 6 478 921.

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