Has Solvay's Italian plant been dumping waste in the Mediterranean for over a century?
4 August 2022
Since 1917, according to the American media Vice, Solvay has been dumping waste in the sea. The Belgian chemical giant would do this in Rosignano Solvay. This coastal town is not only home to Italy's largest chemical plant, but is also a place where many tourists enjoy the sun, sea and beach just 200 metres from where the waste is dumped.
The American media Vice relies on a 2008 study by a local environmental agency, which shows that there are now more than 400 tonnes of mercury in the seabed beneath the water. Rosignano Solvay beach and the Belgian company have now become the scene of a protracted standoff between local health activists and the local government.
Safe and controlled
Solvay assures locals and concerned tourists that the spill is both "safe and controlled" and even helps prevent coastal erosion. Just this year, the Rosignano plant's Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) permit was renewed by the Italian Ministry for Ecological Transition, which would confirm that the plant operates in compliance with EU and Italian regulations.
Local activists are less convinced. Maurizio Marchi, from local cooperative Medicina Democratica, told Vice that high temperatures created mercury vapours which negatively impact children. Local environmental agencies assert that the levels contain high levels of mercury, lead, and arsenic, while Solvay insists that the waters are completely inert.
“Solvay does not use or add heavy metals in its soda ash industrial process. Limestone, like many types of rock or stone, naturally contains traces of heavy metals, but those remain imprisoned in a solid state in the limestone and are not harmful for living organisms,” the company insists.
For four years now, campaigners have been calling for a new study to determine whether or not there is a link between the pollution and chronic diseases in the area. However, the local government has not yet provided the necessary funding. Initiators claim that the mayor of Rosignano Solvay "has blocked the study."
An earlier study from 2016 found that Rosignano had reported an excess of deaths from chronic diseases, as well as heavy pollution in the area, hinting at a link between the site and local health.
Similarly, in 2013, the financial publication Bloomberg discovered criminal documents stating that Solvay's soda ash plant had pumped out waste containing six times more mercury than the legal limit. According to some, the investigation was therefore postponed indefinitely for fear of losing tourism to the area.
Activists have also criticised the close links between the Rosignano municipal administration and the Belgian multinational. Vice highlights that Solvay had recently hired the former mayor of Solvay as CEO of a new plant in the area. The activists demand more transparency and a renewed commitment to the environment at the plant.
After years of deadlock, things are finally moving. Local Italian politician Francesco Berti has managed to secure a visit from Marcos A. Orellana, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Toxic Substances and Human Rights, who will arrive sometime in December. The findings are likely to lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive investigation of pollution in the local area.
Commenting to The Brussels Times, a Solvay spokesperson assured that the process for producing soda ash in Rosignano is "safe and controlled" and uses "natural materials".
"Scientific evidence shows that the water quality is safe and in line with the rest of the Tuscan coast," he said. "The ARS - 'Agenzia Regionale Sanità' (Regional Health Agency) regularly monitors key indicators related to health in many towns in the Tuscan region."
Solvay claims that the quality of the ecological state of the area meets national standards and refers to a recent "excellent" assessment by the local environmental agency ARPAT, which tested 17 points in the bathing areas along the beach.
© Vincenzo PINTO / AFP - This general view shows the view from the Mayor's office of The Solvay chemical plant in Rosignano Solvay, a town in Italy's central Tuscany region on July 31, 2019. The white sand and unusual Caribbean appearance is not natural, but due to production waste from the Solvay chemical plant in Rosignano Solvay, which produces basic chemical products such as sodium carbonate, bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide, calcium chloride and chlorine.