Citizens of Niscemi in Sicily have been struggling for years against the proposed construction of the new MUOS station, a new satellite network serving the US Navy. Health hazard and environmental impact are the main concern of the population. On March 30, over 10,000 people took part in a protest demo. Meanwhile, activism and resistance are starting to pay off: on March 29, Sicilian Governor Rosario Crocetta permanently withdrew authorization to the project.
Around 10,000 people demonstrated on March 30 in Niscemi near Caltanissetta in Sicily against the proposed creation of the M.U.O.S. (Mobile User Objective System), a ultra-high-frequency satellite network to serve the US Navy.
The rally was opened by children from the local elementary school and their mothers, who formed a protest committee earlier this year. The Mothers Against MUOS, as they call themselves, have fiercely opposed the projects with pickets (including one at the City Hall of Niscemi), occupations and road blockades over the past three months. Their tenacity has earned them criminal charges (including resisting arrest and damage to property). Attempts at criminalizing the movement have resulted in alarm about “possible infiltration by vandals” and in the discovery of “vandalizing tools” on March 14, 2013. “We are not black blocs (anarchist protesters), we are concerned moms and we want our children to be safe,” responded the Mothers against MUOS committee.
To attract media attention, the children of Niscemi wrote a letter to the daughters of the US President Obama, telling them that “our smile is the same as the smile of every child in the world.”
Saturday’s protest was peaceful and it soon turned into a joyful celebration. The mothers stopped briefly in front of the US military base, piling their children’s toys against the wall in a symbolic action of protest.
The demo saw the presence of many activists from other movements across the nation, from the No-TAV protesters to the committee fighting the US military base in Dal Molin, near Vicenza.
Several representatives from local authorities took part in the demo. Among them were the Mayor of Niscemi, Francesco La Rosa, an early supporter of the struggle, and the Vice President of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, Antonio Venturino (M5S). Venturino, who has recently been in the spotlight for using official cars in violation of the rules of his own party, declared that he did not bring a M5S flag because the protest belonged to all citizens and a political party should not try to take any ownership.
A brief history of MUOS and of the struggle against it.
Just a day before the planned demo, on March 29, Governor Rosario Crocetta (PD – Democratic Party) announced that the Region of Sicily was permanently withdrawing authorization given to the installation of the MUOS transmitter.
This action seems to conclude a cycle of citizens’ protests and official denial that has been ongoing for the past few years.
Based on ultra-high frequency (UHF), MUOS was meant to replace the current system of communications (known as UFO) and to provide an enhanced communications service to mobile users, including drone pilots. Niscemi, 60 km south-east of the US base of Sigonella, is one of the system’s four strategic stations. The other three stations are located in Western Australia, Southeast Virgina and Hawaii. Lockheed Martin is the project’s developer and main contractor.
High power broadcast transmitters at mobile frequencies are the source of concern among the local residents, who fear cancer-inducing effects and other health hazards. The environmental impact of the station is also a source of concern. Niscemi is home to “la Sughereta”, a nature reserve containing one of the few wild cork oak woods still left in the country. Ironically, Sughereta is exactly the area where the MUOS station would be placed. With its satellite transmitters, MUOS would therefore violate the landscape protection act, which forbids the erection of high-voltage pylons, cables and other high-impact structures in the area. (As it happens, conveniently the boundaries of the reserve were moved in 2012 in order to make room for the project.)
The construction of the project was approved by the Ministry of Defence in 2006, followed by the approval of a group of representatives from various local authorities as early as 2007.
Two years later the first committee against MUOS was formed; in the same year, 2009, the Municipality of Niscemi passed a formal resolution against the project.
However, the Regional Government of Sicily stipulated that no concrete actions would be taken before a preliminary technical assessment, including an estimate of the future electromagnetic emissions.
Despite ongoing pressure from the US government, formal authorization of the project did not come until 2011. On June 28, 2011, the Regional Government of Sicily authorized the construction of the MUOS Station through the relevant department, the Bureau of Environment and Territory. Data warfare also ensued: the University of Palermo published a favorable assessment but the data and methodology were criticized by an independent study commissioned by the Municipality of Niscemi.
In 2012, while the first two MUOS Satellites were being tested and launched, representatives from the No-MUOS movement finally gained national attention: they were received by the Parliamentary Commission on Impoverished Uranium at the Senate, and the Defence Commission at the Chamber of Deputies. Thanks to the latter’s initiative, a moratorium was demanded. The Public Prosecutor of Caltagirone sequestered the premises of the future MUOS station on October 5 (2012); the next day, 5,000 citizens demonstrated against the project. However, following an appeal, the building site reopened on October 28.
A big protest followed in November 22, after the publication of a notice of road closure to allow ’special transport’ – as people suspected, it was the cranes necessary to position the three receiving stations of the MUOS in their final locations. Citizens started picketing the area in order to prevent such transport. False rumors about the route were spread in an attempt to disorient and demobilize them. The cranes finally did arrive on January 10, 2013, with hundreds of anti-riot police escorting them.
The National Government stepped in at the beginning of 2013: on January 7, the Ministry of the Interior Anna Maria Cancellieri sent a note to Sicily’s Governor Rosario Crocetta, reminding him of the strategic importance of MUOS for national security; the Cabinet also issued a note ordering that no obstruction be made to the project. Monti confirmed his position later, during the electoral campaign, when he declared that the MUOS project has inescapable financial commitments behind it.
In January 2013, Leon Panetta (then US Defense secretary) declared that while the concerns of local inhabitants were understandable, no health hazard was associated with MUOS.
Meanwhile, tension escalated. Protesting mothers were brutally beaten up by police on March 6; several activists had their homes searched by police on March 14.
In answer to growing popular pressure, Governor Rosario Crocetta initially asked for a temporary suspension of the work, pending an official study by the Superior Institute for Health (ISS) (March 13, 2013). However, the activists of the No-MUOS movement saw this proposal as futile, given that risk assessment and recommendations from the OMS and other similar institutions are already available. Fears of partiality were also expressed, since the ISS would be working with incomplete data provided by the US military base of Sigonella.
Sicily’s decision to withdraw permanently authorization seemingly opens a new chapter in this story. No official answer has yet been provided by the US Department of Defense.
Sources available here.