Arsenic and old leaks: Tuscany's darkest secret

The hills of southern Chiantishire are among Italy's most lovely. But much of their water supply is poisoned. Peter Popham exposes a tragedy of human negligence

I drive up into the Tuscan hills with Roberto Barocci, past the old miners' cottages, now holiday homes, all freshly painted and pointed, then take an unmade, unmarked, lane into a valley that looks like a corner of paradise.

I drive up into the Tuscan hills with Roberto Barocci, past the old miners' cottages, now holiday homes, all freshly painted and pointed, then take an unmade, unmarked, lane into a valley that looks like a corner of paradise.

This looks the discovery of a lifetime. It is almost completely empty, a solitary stone cottage perched high on the wooded slopes. And the place is gorgeous in the first hot week of summer, silent except for the organ-pipe cry of the hoopoe birds and the chattering of the bee-eaters, full of beech and oak and false acacia and the sparkling yellow flowers and heavy, sweet scent of broom.

But the valley has been left alone for an excellent reason. Mr Barocci parks the car and we clamber down a winding footpath for a few minutes and then he introduces me to the feature of this valley that means no one in their right mind would want a stake in it.

He parts the broom bushes to reveal what appears, bizarrely enough, to be an expanse of sandy beach, stretching for dozens of metres either side of the footpath: gently undulating crusty sand on which nothing at all grows.

Here, in this blinding patch of improbable sand, is the dark underside of Tuscany, its hidden industrial history, and the legacy of pollution with which it is saddled. Because these expanses of sand are what remain from the process of purifying minerals dug up from the hills nearby, which provide the raw material for the region's sulphuric acid industry. The sand looks innocuous but it is fiercely polluted with heavy metals, notably arsenic and copper but also mercury.

A few steps further down the valley, we see where that pollution is ending up. There is a water table underneath the strange sand flats and, when the water emerges from a tunnel, it brings with it a thick brown sediment, "with a murderous quantity of arsenic", says Mr Barocci, a local teacher and regional environmental adviser to the Refondazione Comunista.

We peer into the shallow stream, with its residues of startling copper-blue and its sludgy sediment. "The water's only trickling out now," he says. "A year or two back it was coming out at 300 litres per second, and pouring into the Bruna river."

Tuscany is one of the most popular holiday destinations for middle-class Brits with its charming villas for rent, wonderful Renaissance cities to explore, exquisite countryside and marvellous food and wine.

But few visitors realise large parts of southern Tuscany, as far east and north as the southern reaches of Siena, one of the most popular of Tuscan cities, have been visited in the past few years with an environmental calamity. It is a calamity that with responsible mining management and conscientious regional government need never have occurred. Half-built tourist villages lie abandoned because they cannot find a useable local source of water; resorts on the coast face a long, hot summer without regular piped water.

But the company that local environmentalists hold responsible, and the politicians who turned a blind eye, continue to prevaricate. Holidaymakers and ordinary Tuscans knew nothing of what was brewing in the region until three years ago. Then, in April, 2001, it broke into view when an abandoned mine near the beautiful Tuscan city of Massa Marittima suddenly began to spew heavily contaminated water.

A deep, iridescent plum-red in colour, a soup of arsenic, copper, mercury and other heavy metals, the poisonous water poured from the mine at 16 litres a second into the river Merse, one of the region's most celebrated rivers, which flows south of Siena. The tourist agencies are unlikely to draw attention to the fact, but the Merse has been polluted since.

Near the coast, a small mountain of mine waste composed of much the same stuff that was polluting the Merse (they call the slag heap panetone, because its round form and steep sides remind Italians of the panetone cake they eat at Christmas) was steadily sinking into the ground under its own colossal weight.

At a certain point, it broke through to the water table, and a second pollution event had started. Now the wells for miles around have been sealed as undrinkable because of the high quantity of mercury, in places up to 3,000 micrograms of arsenic per litre. The World Health Organisation's recommended maximum for drinking water is 10 micrograms per litre.

If mass poisoning is not a serious worry, it is only because the wells are rigorously tested by the authorities, and sealed, if not up to scratch. But there is no such certainty for farmers on the coastal plain: today they continue to draw water from aquifers adulterated by the waste, and run a constant risk of having their produce contaminated.

It sounds like the classic Third World disaster scenario, and one country where it is a devastating problem is Bangladesh. The natural occurrence of arsenic in the ground water has rendered thousands of Bangladeshi tube wells hazardous to human health. But this is not Bangladesh but Tuscany, one of the richest, most favoured, most beloved corners of Italy. And although the arsenic here is present in the rocks, it was released by humans.

Mining has a long history in these parts: the currency of the Tuscan comuni was stamped from silver hacked out of these mines, and lead, copper, mercury and arsenic were also extracted. In the 13th century, when Tuscany was incubating the Renaissance, pocket democracies such as Massa Marittima, the city at the heart of the mining industry, had clear notions of the responsibilities of mine owners.

"Massa Maritimma was the first city in Europe to devise a miners' charter, regulating mining activity by law, Mr Barocci says. "Of course, they didn't have modern ideas about reclaiming worked-out mines, but they required mine owners to close air holes they had opened along the course of the mine tunnels, so people wouldn't fall down them." In other words, the notion of social responsibility was clearly stated and accepted. Today, Tuscan mines that have outlived their usefulness are treated very differently.

Driving down these pretty lanes, you wouldn't spot the Campiano mine unless someone pointed it out: its low sheds are set back from the road amid unspoiled woodland, barred to the curious by steel gates. In the distance, the arched vehicle entrance to the mine opens directly into the side of the hill.

But despite its modest exterior, Campiano, the last Tuscan mine to close, is big. For decades, they mined for pyrites, chunks of rock rich in minerals, going down to 800 metres. There are 35 kilometres of driveable roads under the mine, and hundreds more kilometres of narrow tunnels.

By the mid-90s, the mine was nearing the end of its working life, and the Italian oil giant which owned it, Enichem Spa, decided to close it. Sulphuric acid, the main commercial product of the pyrites, is now obtained exclusively from oil. When a big mine such as Campiano is closed, the operating company is obliged to prevent the worked-out tunnels from collapsing. Enichem filled the mine with the waste produced by the sulphuric acid factory on the coast, site of the panetone slag-heap that was slowly sinking.

What could be simpler than to cart the waste back to where it came from and dump it in the mine? One problem: the waste was known to contain lethal quantities of arsenic.The problem was solved by jiggery-pokery in the testing of the waste by the Tuscan region, yielding the happy conclusion that the waste was not toxic but "inert".

On that basis, Enichem was given permission to stuff the mine with the waste, on condition that the waste always remained dry. The company readily agreed, and at the time, in 1993, it was true, because pumps worked night and day to keep the mine in operation. Ultimately, 67,000 tons of "inert" waste from the sulphuric acid factory was deposited inside the mine. But three years later, in 1996, the mine was closed. The pumps fell silent.

Rain penetrated into the galleries of the abandoned mine. Slowly, very slowly, the mine filled up with water.In 1997, the public prosecutor of Grosseto, a nearby city, submitted a detailed report on the gravity of the situation developing in the mine, predicting that the crisis could arrive as soon as 1998. "On the basis of these data," he wrote, "it is therefore necessary to adopt necessary measures to prevent the uncontaminated water, both surface and underground, being contaminated by the polluted water in the mine." Nobody in authority paid a blind bit of notice.

The only thing the prosecutor got slightly wrong was the time frame. In fact, Tuscany had another three years to get their house in order. But they did nothing. Then, in April, 2001, the mine blew. "From April to October 2001, bright-red mud came pouring out of the Campiano mine at a rate of about 16 litres per second," Mr Barocci says. "It sluiced down into the Merse, one of the most beautiful and, until that point, one of the cleanest rivers in Italy."

The mine's immensely wealthy and powerful former owners had washed their hands of all responsibility, and that remains their position today. By coincidence, it was only one month after the relenting of the red tide that the parent company of Enichem, Montedison, agreed to pay £135m to clean up chemical contamination at a plant in Marghera, in the north-east of Italy, which had led to the cancer deaths of 157 workers and the polluting of Venice's lagoon.

More surprising, on the face of it, than Enichem's refusal to take responsibility for what happened at Campiano is the equally cavalier attitude of the Tuscan government, not a government of the demonised right, but communists who have been running Tuscany for nearly 50 years. And that, Mr Barocci says, is the heart of the problem: they have been in power too long.

As is the way with public-interest cases in Italy, the story has become enormously complicated. But out in the real world, the nightmare of pollution continues, and will worsen. Earthmovers are slowly getting to grips with the panetone of waste at the sulphuric acid plant by the coast, but the weight of waste continues to force poisons into the water table, closing wells, endangering agriculture, threatening to blight tourism.

Even the river Merse is still threatened. Under immense pressure from Mr Barocci and his supporters, the region installed a temporary filtration system in the mine, and began the task of carting away the toxic muck for proper disposal. But the filter system is only temporary and is not working properly. The water pouring from the mine still carries a thick sludge of brown sediment. To banish Tuscany's arsenic problem for good, one expert estimates, would cost £264m, another excellent reason for the politicians to keep the subject as far from the popular agenda as possible.

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