Pollution and planes destroy the Tuscan idyll

Jessie Grimond
Sunday 04 August 2002 00:00 BST

The rural beauty of Tuscany, which attracts an army of British expats and summer visitors from Tony Blair to John Mortimer, is under siege.

Among the environmental threats which have spawned more than 30 protest groups are a river which has turned purple and orange, a massive waste incinerator near San Gimignano, and airport plans which could bring charter planes thundering over the rooftops of Siena.

Tuscany's idyllic image is deceptive, according to Luciano Dallape, who is in charge of liaison among the protest groups, known as comitati. One of their greatest concerns is the pollution of the river Merse, in the heart of "Chiantishire".

The Merse was considered one of the cleanest rivers in all Italy, because it doesn't pass near any villages or factories, but it has now been choked with waste products from a disused mine used to store millions of tons of toxic pyrite ash, a by-product of sulphuric acid.

Roberto Barocci, who teaches territorial economics at the Grosseto Technical Education Institute, has run a detailed study on the pollution of the Merse. He says that for months the river glowed purple and orange for several miles, its waters tainted with substances such as hematite, iron, copper, pyrite and arsenic. Otters, freshwater crabs, newts and trout have disappeared completely.

Another comitato is campaigning against the proliferation of waste incinerators in the region. Around 20 more incinerators are planned for Tuscany, according to Francesco Francisi of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Florence. In particular, plans to expand an old incinerator near San Gimignano to four times its current size have stirred local anger.

Mr Dallape questions the necessity, the economics, the health risk and the aesthetics. "There are even rumours that the mayor of San Gimignano wants to build a hill to hide the eyesore," he said.

Local government officials also want to develop a small military air base near Siena to take international flights, creating fears that the historic city, an architectural and artistic centre of world importance, will be blighted by the roar of jumbo jets. Miles of surrounding countryside could be disturbed as well, despite the protests of activists, who also complain that the base is sited on top of a natural water source that supplies the taps of most of the area.

"Siena doesn't need an international airport," said one campaigner. "We have two only an hour's drive away, at Pisa and Florence."

Other plans threaten the landscape around Sovicille, near Siena, with huge electricity pylons to deliver power to two big chemical companies in the area. Mr Dallape said pleas by local people for the cables to be buried had so far been ignored.

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