Corporate criminals arrested in Italy

Feature story - 20 January, 2003
In a warning to all irresponsible companies, Italian authorities recently arrested 18 executives and managers of the Italian chemicals firm, Enichem. The company was discovered to be pouring deadly toxic waste directly into the environment with the full knowledge of the company bosses. Ten Enichem employees have been jailed while the others are under house arrest.

Action at Enichem plant

The investigation began last September when a group of residents observed an unusual red tinted waste stream flowing into the sea out of a pipe used by the Enichem factories in Priolo and Gela, Sicily. Local authorities pursued the lead, sampling the discharge and tapping Enichem's phone lines. Listening to phone conversations the investigators discovered that Enichem managers knew about the illegal discharge but simply did not care - despite the fact that mercury concentrations found in the waste waters were up to 20,000 times higher than legal limits.

The Enichem plants manufacture chlorine which is used in the manufacturing of Vinyl Chloride Monomer (VCM). VCM is the building block of the common plastic, PVC, but is also a potent cancer causing chemical. The plants are located in a petrochemical complex where health studies have shown a disturbing trend of illnesses and birth defects in the nearby communities. Babies born near the industrial area have a five times higher chance to be born with birth defects. Heart disease around the area is also 5 times the national average and there are increased levels of cancer among men living in the area.

Local groups including doctors have taken legal action against Priolo industries, but until now no one has attempted to reverse the situation or better understand the role of industrial pollution in the case of human health problems. In the past workers at the Enichem plant have complained about exposure to harmful chemicals from air emissions. Last year, public prosecutors shut down electricity production inside the chemical plant for illegally burning hazardous waste.

A quick look at the Eni Group's web site provides a glimpse into the display of hypocrisy and greenwash so typical of today's corporate public relations: "The safeguard of health, the safety in the workplace and in the management of productive plants and the protection of the environment are major objectives for Eni in the strategies and plans of the Group. This choice is in accordance with the conviction that Eni's economic development is compatible with the respect for nature and the well-being of people."

But words are cheap and do nothing to heal the devastation caused by the birth of a malformed baby or a man stricken with cancer in the prime of life. It certainly did not help the surviving families last year when Enichem and Montedison were acquitted of charges for mass manslaughter of 260 workers who died from cancer and other illnesses as a result of exposure to VCM in the town of Marghera in northern Italy.

Enichem's claims of ignorance concerning the toxicity of the chemicals it used and produced in Marghera merely reinforces the desperate need to make corporations responsible and liable for the safety of the chemicals they produce and release into the environment.

For arrested Enichem executives Giuseppe D'Arrigo, Giuseppe Rivoli and Gaetano Claves, there is now plenty of time to contemplate whether it really was worth cutting costs and risking other people's lives to make a profit.