Outcry over court ruling in Venice poison trial

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The Independent Online

Environmentalists and relatives of 157 workers poisoned at a petrochemicals plant near Venice are outraged over a court ruling that absolves managers of the state-owned petrochemicals company of manslaughter.

Environmentalists and relatives of 157 workers poisoned at a petrochemicals plant near Venice are outraged over a court ruling that absolves managers of the state-owned petrochemicals company of manslaughter.

The workers at the Porto Marghera plant, only a few miles from St Mark's Square, died over the past 20 years from exposure to vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a toxic chemical used to make plastics. A hundred suffered serious illnesses.

The verdict last Friday, after a three-year trial, outraged the dead workers' families and environmental campaigners. There were emotional scenes in court with relatives yelling "assassins" and environmentalists occupying the judge's bench.

Gianfranco Bettin, the deputy mayor of Venice, burst into tears and said it showed that "workers' lives were worth nothing" and Ezelinda Agnoletto, whose husband died from liver cancer, said the victims "had been killed a second time".

The Green party leader Grazia Francescato, who complained of a "a Wild West situation where human life simply doesn't count" said the verdict was "a licence to kill".

A poll of 969 Italians showed 81 per cent disagreed with the ruling. Venice City Council said it would appeal. The case was considered historic because for the first time leading managers were in the dock not just for the deaths of blue-collar workers but for the damage caused to the Venice lagoon. It has prompted similar inquiries and trials concerning suspect deaths at other industrial plants.

But the trial cleared 28 senior staff of ENI and its subsidiaries, ruling that the perils of VCM were not proved until the workers fell ill. The judge said the men's deaths, mainly in the past two decades, were linked to exposure in the 1950s and 1960s, before VCM's toxicity was ascertained and that after 1973, when dangers became clear, ENI reduced workers' exposure to within the legal limits of the time, though these were inadequate.

The public prosecutor Felice Casson, who had demanded sentences of up to 12 years, said management had not protected the employees even though it had been aware of the danger. He said from the late Sixties there were close contacts between all European chemical companies because of the growing awareness that the discovery of health risks from VCM could jeopardise the industry. But at Port Marghera, workers who complained to in-house doctors were simply told to drink less alcohol. Most of the workers died from severe liver damage and leukaemia.

Although Venice is appealing against the verdict, the state, also an injured party for alleged environmental damage, will not. The government signed a deal with Montedison Chemicals, one of the companies at Port Margh-era, two days before the verdict, whereby the company pledged to pay 525 billion lire (£169m) to clean nine of the most polluted areas of the lagoon.

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