Protecting public health on the Italian Riviera: the Maersk case

Liguria, with its beautiful coastline and wonderful mountainous hinterland, has been a place for people from Northern Europe and the north of Italy to take holidays since the 19th century. After the Second World War the region saw a boom in tourism and in industrial development with all the attendant consequences: illegal building activity, destruction of the environment, very large numbers of migrants and urbanisation of the rural population.

Submitted by StrugglesInItaly on February 25, 2014

Today the region is being hit by de-industrialization and a difficult rebuilding of the economy. Local government is focusing on mass tourism (particularly cruise ships) and port development, seemingly ignoring the increasingly impoverished population which pays the environmental costs of the associated pollution. Each autumn and winter there are devastating floods which claim lives, caused by the destruction of forests, the abandonment of rural areas and uncontrolled building. Little Liguria comes first on the list of Northern Italian regions for crime connected to illegal development (often involving the mafia and politicians) and second for unemployment.

Looking at the issue of the Maersk platform in Vado Ligure is a good way to understand Liguria’s economic system: public money serving private companies, indifference to the needs of the region and its inhabitants’ wishes and opinions, and the destruction of the natural environment.

Thirteen years have passed since an agreement on the Savona port allocation plan was signed. This consists of the construction of what was to be a 180,000 square metre multipurpose platform, now extended to 223,000 square metres (600 metres long), on concrete blocks about 4.5 metres above sea level, in the basin in front of the commercial port of Vado Ligure. The goal is to increase annual container handling from the current average of 200,000 units to 750,000 units.

This plan is highly controversial, with environmental associations and city committees ranged on one side and the port authority, regional and national government on the other. The total project cost amounts to 450m euros, 150m invested by the Danish shipping company Maersk and 300m coming from public funds.

Such public funding is being challenged by local committees (such as Amare Vado and Vivere Vado) which have submitted a report to the EU Directorate General for Competition. It questions the legality of public funding for the platform, especially as it is intended to be in private use (by Maersk) for many years.

A referendum, strongly supported by the Municipality of Vado Ligure, was held in January 2008. Two-thirds (67%) rejected the Maersk project and also requested greater environmental and occupational guarantees. Regrettably, no attention was paid to this by national government which said that such a referendum was too late to change anything.

The most disturbing aspects of the proposal concern risks to the environment and to human health. Vado Ligure is already seriously affected by a coal-burning power plant (run by Tirreno Power) situated in the middle of the residential area, which is under criminal investigation for environmental damage. The incidence of lung cancer, for example, is 30% higher in Vado than in surrounding areas.

In the Maersk project, the greatest risk comes from dredging which is necessary to install foundations 1.5m below the sea bed. Centuries of industrial activity have contaminated the sea floor with heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, zinc, tin), hydrocarbons and dioxins which could be released into the water just a kilometre away from the Marine Protected Area of Bergeggi Island and its nature reserve. The Ligurian Gulf is home to 12 species of marine mammal (including dolphins, fin whales, sperm whales and killer whales) and is at the centre of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. Recently the small Municipality of Vado Ligure appealed to the Italian Council of State and obtained the intervention of the European Environment Agency, based in Denmark, to make inspections and evaluate the danger in preliminary works.

Strong concern has been expressed about how the flow of seawater will be altered and impeded by both the foundation’s concrete blocks and an underwater wall (which will block free passage of water around 40% of the platform edge and may misdirect it dangerously).

There are also risks related to the air pollution caused by cargo ships and heavy goods vehicles using the port. The number of vehicles is likely to increase by 600% after the platform is built, with peaks of 2,000 vehicles a day. The present infrastructure could not cope with these numbers and the construction of a new dedicated highway junction is in the pipeline.

At this point, although there are doubts about the ethics of the project, work has started towards installing the foundation blocks and few believe that the colossal operation will stop. The combative local committees, though, have not lost heart, and keep asking for the work to stop, until the outcome of the European Environment Agency’s investigation is known. They have declared themselves ready to “defeat all those projects that would turn Vado into a desert”.

More information and related articles are here.