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End-of-visit statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes
Marcos A. Orellana on his visit to Italy, 30 November to 13 December 2021


Italian version

13 December 2021

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Government of Italy for the invitation to conduct a country visit and for its excellent cooperation and efforts to ensure that I could make the most of my visit. I am very grateful for the frank and constructive discussions with officials of the national and regional governments. 

I had the privilege to discuss with the Inter-ministerial Committee for Human Rights, the Under-Secretary of State of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the Chief of Cabinet of the Ministry of Justice, the officials at the Ministry for Ecological Transition, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agricultural, Food and Forestry Policies, Ministry of Economic Development, the Committee on Environment, Territory and Public Works of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and the Carabinieri Command for the environment protection and ecological transition.

I also had the honour to speak with representatives of the regional governments of Veneto, Campania and Puglia, as well as representatives of the local waste management in the municipality of Rome.

I appreciated the opportunity to visit Porto Marghera in Venice, the red area of per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination in Veneto, the Tamburi neighbourhood next to the ILVA plant in Taranto, the area known as Terra del Fuochi in Campania, and the waste-to-energy facility in San Vittore, Lazio. I am grateful to the community members, officials, doctors and lawyers in those sites for the information provided.

I am also very grateful for the rich exchanges with the representatives of the vibrant and active Italian civil society.

At this final stage of my visit, I am pleased to share my preliminary observations. A full report on the issues discussed during my visit will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council at its fifty-first session, in September 2022.

Introduction

I wish to first welcome the adoption of Law 68-2015 that introduced into the Italian Criminal Code the title of crimes against the environment, including the crimes of environmental pollution and environmental disaster. Prior to the 2015 law, the Italian criminal legislation regarded environmental offences as misdemeanours. This created a low risk, high reward for criminal activity, which fuelled inter alia the illegal dumping and burning of hazardous wastes.  The 2015 law not only established new environmental crimes, but also enhanced the range of tools available to fight them, including extended statute of limitations (prescription), pre-trial detention, and wiretapping. These changes have been key for the effective investigation and prosecution of highly polluting facilities and Eco mafia.

Earlier this year, legislative changes have been approved to speed up judicial processes. While more agile and speedy trials are worthwhile objectives, I am concerned of shorter prescription times for environmental crimes, since their complexity often requires substantial time to complete adequate investigations. I am concerned that application of accelerated prescription times could lead to impunity for environmental crime.

I welcome the fact that Italy counts with specialized security forces to investigate environmental crimes: the Carabinieri for the protection of the environment and ecological transition. I encourage the Italian authorities to foster international cooperation initiatives to share the wide experience and expertise of the Carabinieri in their fight against environmental crimes.

Italy has shown strong leadership in environmental matters, as when in 1992 it became a pioneer in the prohibition of asbestos. In this context, and recalling this role played by Italy, I call Italy today to ratify the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and to take decisive action to address contamination by PFAS.

Contaminated sites

My visit focused on three key issues: contaminated sites, waste management, and pesticides.

Contaminated sites pose very serious human rights concerns given the exposure to hazardous substances of communities that live in their vicinity. Contaminated sites are not only a problem of past industrial development, however, as certain activities and operations carried out today are generating serious toxic contamination and leading to increasing numbers of cases of illness and deaths in the population.

I welcome the establishment and important work carried out by the National Epidemiological Study of Territories and Settlements Exposed to Pollution Risk, also known as the SENTIERI project. The project analyses the health profile of populations impacted by National Priority Contaminated Sites. It pays attention to vulnerable groups and offers public health advice, and it is including elements of environmental justice in its current iteration.

The SENTIERI project has detected an excess of malignant mesothelioma, lung, colon and gastric cancer, and for non-malignant respiratory diseases in the population affected by national priority contaminated sites. Excess of cancers has mainly affected persons living in the vicinity of chemical and petrochemical plants, oil refineries, and sites where hazardous wastes have been dumped. I call Italy to ensure periodic and adequate funding for the continuation of the SENTIERI programme and to take effective action to address its findings.

Porto Marghera

I am concerned with the situation in Porto Marghera. It is a massive industrial complex that for decades has neglected environmental protection and released hazardous wastes contamination. It is essential that the regional government monitors the health condition of the inhabitants around Porto Marghera, considering the information received about excess mortality, tumours and cardio-circulatory diseases that could be linked to the high levels of contamination.

I also take note of positive steps, such as the transformation of polluting industries, including the coal-fired power plant and the petrochemical plant. I also welcome the initial steps that have been taken towards remediation in certain areas of the site. In any event, due to the gravity and extension of the pollution, the remediation plan needs to be urgently and effectively implemented throughout the whole contaminated site.

Veneto

I am seriously concerned by the magnitude of the pollution with PFAS (also known as forever chemicals because they persist and do not degrade in the environment) in certain areas of the region of Veneto. More than 300,000 people in the region have been impacted by water contamination with PFAS, including drinking water. Residents in the area have suffered serious health problems, such as infertility, miscarriages, and several forms of tumours, among others.

The human dimension of the problem was illustrated to us by one of the mothers we met during the visit: “Can you imagine what it means for a mother to realise she has poisoned her children through breast milk?”

For several decades, the chemical company Miteni produced PFAS in Trissino (Vicenza) and released its wastes without control, polluting surface and underground waters and the food chain, affecting areas of Verona, Vicenza and Padua. While those in charge of the company seemed to be aware of the waste releases and resulting pollution, they did not offer adequate protection measures to its workers, nor did they disclose information about the gravity of the PFAS pollution.

In 2013, the National Research Council of Italy informed regional authorities about the presence of the PFAS pollutants. The Regional authorities of Veneto took a series of actions, such as installing carbon filters to purify drinking water in the most polluted areas and reporting the case to the prosecutor’s office. In time, other measures included revising authorizations of companies using PFAS to establish limits of PFAS discharge, as well as investing in a system of public works in order to bring non-polluted water to the area.

However, authorities failed to warn the residents of the affected areas and disseminate the information about the PFAS pollution and the risks to their health. Some residents learned about the toxic contamination problem in 2016-2017, when the region initiated a health surveillance plan for the population exposed to PFAS in the critical red area.
Regional authorities are also monitoring the health situation of some of the inhabitants and some of the food products in relation to PFAS pollution. However, this monitoring is restricted to the most polluted area, which raises serious concerns, among those living in the other areas that are also affected, about the level of PFAS pollution in their organisms and the safety of the food products they consume.

I take note that the Vicenza Tribunal has started to hear a criminal case for environmental offenses against 15 defendants involved in the Miteni operations, and I plan to follow it closely. I also take note that a number of civil parties have joined the proceedings. In the event that the court were to declare the civil responsibility of the defendants, I trust that Italy may cooperate with those jurisdictions where the defendants have assets in order to make good on the Tribunal’s decision, secure compensation to the victims,  and fulfil the polluter pays principle.

I would like to underline that PFAS pollution, however, is not restricted to the activity of the Miteni plant. It also results from the operations of small and medium companies within and beyond the region that use PFAS in their production processes and discharge of contaminated waters, including for example the textile and leather industries.

I also wish to underscore that PFAS-related pollution is not restricted to the Veneto region. Among other areas, PFAS contamination is of concern along Italy’s principal basin, the Po valley. I am particularly concerned regarding ongoing production of PFAS by the company Solvay, in Spinetta Marengo, Alessandria, in the Piedmont region. This operation could create an environmental disaster similar to that suffered by the affected communities in Veneto.

I take note of the lack of the regulation of PFAS at national level. I call Italy to take the necessary steps towards the restriction on the use of these substances as a class at the national level, and to exercise regional leadership, as the European Union prepares to address the serious health and environmental threats posed by PFAS.

Terra dei Fuochi

The Land of Fires in the region of Campania affects 3 million people in a territory that includes approximately 500 contaminated sites in 90 municipalities (between the north-western part of Caserta and the north-eastern part of Naples).  The name Terra dei Fuochi refers to the illegal dumping, burying, and burning of industrial waste in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Part of the waste was transported to Campania from the industrialised areas of the north of Italy by the so-called Eco mafia. Another part of the waste was generated by the region’s local industries.

In the past, the risk involved for these illegal activities was considered relatively low, since they were regarded as simple misdemeanours with low penalties.  Diverse industries and companies in the country associated themselves with these criminal networks to lower the cost of their waste disposal.

The illegal dumping and burning of hazardous wastes has generated very high levels of air, water and soil pollution in certain areas. 400 hectares of land have been analysed by the authorities, and in 12% of them farming has been totally banned and partially banned in another 20%. However, the problem’s scope is not fully known. Studies document increased morbidity and mortality of people living in the polluted areas, in addition to increased vulnerability to COVID-19. Despite my requests, the Region’s health authorities have not provided detailed data that could refute these findings.

The government has taken several initiatives in regard to the contamination, including legislative measures in 2014 for the characterisation and remediation of contaminated sites. However, there are not sufficient resources for the effective implementation of the law. Remediation activities have not yet been implemented and more support from the central government is required.

Burning of waste still continues in the Campania region, albeit at lower levels than in the early 2000s. According to information received, wastes are burned in open dumps and landfills in other regions of the country as well.

Ilva Taranto

The Ilva plant in the Puglia region is Europe’s largest steel plant. For 60 years it emitted fine dust, carcinogenic dioxins and other hazardous substances that have caused an intolerable level of pollution. Medical reports state that the pollution has caused a surge of cancer, respiratory illnesses, as well as cardiovascular and neurological diseases in the company workers and the residents of Taranto.

The neighbourhoods of Tamburi and Borgo are the closest to the steel plant and have been particularly affected. In these two neighbourhoods, schools close on days of poor air quality. Studies by the National Institute of Health have documented IQ loss in children. Other studies document autism and impairment of neurodevelopment. Also, residents have seen the value of their properties plummet due to the pollution from the plant.

I am also concerned by the alarming levels of Co2 emissions by the Ilva plant: it ranks as the number 1 emitter of Co2 in Italy.  The plant should stop burning coal for the production of electricity.

I also take note that some remediation and monitoring activities have been carried by the regional authorities, such as the removal of topsoil in school playgrounds in Tamburi and the monitoring of air pollution.

There have been court judgements at the national and European levels relating to the pollution caused by Ilva. In 2019, the European Court of Human rights in the case Cordella and Others v. Italy observed that the environmental contamination endangers the health of local residents and concluded that Italy had failed to take all the necessary measures to effectively protect them. In May this year, the former owners of Ilva have been convicted to 22 and 20 years in prison for allowing Ilva to spew out deadly pollution. Other 24 ex-managers and local politicians were also handed prison terms.

I take note that the Government has adopted several legislative decrees known as “Salva-Ilva.” In particular, legislative decree No. 98 of 09 June 2016 (the 7th decree) provides for criminal and administrative immunities for the future purchaser of the plant. This grant of immunity creates a perception of impunity for the benefit of powerful economic interests, and it is furthermore incompatible with equality under the law.

According to information received, the plant and its production process is obsolete. ARPA Puglia has concluded that the plant’s foreseen operations carry unacceptable impacts to human health and the environment. This conclusion has considered existing national air pollution standards, which are even less protective than those recommended by the World Health Organization. Authorities in Puglia have expressed the view that the region lacks the authority to enact more stringent standards. However, this view is inconsistent with the views and practice of regional authorities in Veneto and Lazio, for example. This issue has great implications for the ability of the residents of Taranto to enjoy their rights to life, health and a healthy environment, and it should be clarified.

Now that the State is one of the co-owners of the plant, it should  speed up the cleanup of contaminated sites, as well as Ilva´s transformation, so that the plant’s contamination ceases to endanger human health and the environment. The Ministry of Environment should not ignore the conclusions of ARPA Puglia. The Government should ensure that any operations at Ilva, and any new authorization, respects the updated WHO’s air quality levels (which were released earlier this year).

Livorno

As mentioned in the briefing with the Government, I have received information during the visit about the pollution created by the company Solvay in Livorno, Tuscany. I intend to explore this issue further during the preparation of the report.

Pesticides

I am deeply troubled by Italy’s authorization for the export of pesticides that do not have an approval in the European Union because they are hazardous to human health and the environment. I am encouraged by the authorities’ assertion that Italy will no longer authorize such exports.  I call Italy to put an end to the abhorrent double standards resulting from the export of banned highly hazardous pesticides.

I am encouraged by the authorities’ assertion that Italy has refused to authorize the export of pesticides that are banned in the European Union because they are hazardous to human health and the environment. I call Italy to exercise leadership at the regional level to secure an EU-wide ban for the export of prohibited pesticides.

I note with concern that Italy’s National Action Plan for pesticides expired in 2018, and no new plan has been adopted yet. This situation and delay is incompatible with the relevant EU Directive on pesticides, which requires that National Action Plans shall be reviewed at least every five years.

According to information received, a draft new text was presented for consultation in 2019. I welcome the news that the draft new plan has the intention to forbid the online sales of pesticides to secure stronger controls.

Another key issue for the draft plan is the dimensions of buffer zones. These no-spray safeguards are indispensable to protect vulnerable people and areas, including schools, playgrounds and hospitals, nature reserves, and archaeological sites. Buffer zones are also key to prevent pollution of surface and groundwaters. I call Italy to ensure that buffer zones are appropriately sized to protect people, waters, and sensitive areas from the serious risks and harms of pesticide spray drift.

According to information received, sales of pesticides in Italy have decreased during the last decade.

However, I am concerned at the significant increase in the volume of pesticides used in Veneto, particularly in the areas growing prosecco wine. The area is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides per hectare in the country, with an equivalent of one cubic meter of pesticides per inhabitant per year.

I am also concerned about the situation in the South Tyrol area. According to information received, hazardous pesticides have been found in children’s playgrounds near agricultural areas. One such hazardous pesticide is Chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide associated with a negative impact on the neurodevelopment of children. This hazardous pesticide is banned in the European Union, but Italy has requested a derogation for its use.

I welcome the initiative taken by several Italian municipalities to join the European Pesticide Free Towns Network, which aims to replace pesticides with sustainable alternatives.

Wastes

The transition toward a circular economy calls for a drastic change in approach to waste. I take note of the important investments in waste management facilities, including segregation, recycling, and waste-to-energy capacity, that are contemplated in the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. However, an effective waste strategy for a circular economy should start with reduction of wastes. Otherwise, the end-of-pipe solutions anticipated in the Plan will not adequately address the waste problem, and they may even spark conflict with local communities in the vicinity of the new or expanded waste management facilities.

Export of waste from Italy to Tunisia

I take note that the last year’s shipment of 282 containers of waste from Italy to Tunisia has been regarded as illegal by Italy’s Ministry of Environment and Ecological Transition. According to the information received, the waste was shipped to Tunisia without its consent. In addition, Tunisia lacks the necessary facilities to ensure its sound management. Furthermore, the waste was not characterised and inspected prior to shipment.

I welcome the action taken by the regional authorities of Campania for the return of the waste to Italy. However, I am appalled at the excessive amount of time the containers of waste have remained in Tunisia, creating a public nuisance and emitting foul odour. I hope that process of repatriation of the wastes from Tunisia to Italy will be carried out and concluded without further delay.

To prevent illegal waste shipments, wastes should be characterized prior to shipment. The cost of such characterisation should be allocated according to the polluter-pays principle.

Rome waste

I take note of the difficulties of the city of Rome to manage efficiently and adequately its waste. The city is even exporting waste to other regions of Italy. While the city is carrying out efforts to manage its waste, effective policies that prevent and reduce waste are indispensable. Additionally, I take note that the region is planning to increase the recycling rates and improve its waste management capacity.

Conclusion

Italy should step up efforts to redress the adverse impacts on the enjoyment of human rights of decades of industrialisation. Authorities should ensure that industries use technologies and production methods that do not impair the health of Italian residents. Every person has the right to live in a healthy and toxic-free environment.