Will the judgement be guilty or not guilty in the ‘asbestos trial’ of the owners of the company Eternit, in Casale Monferrato, Italy?
After a two-year trial, a verdict is finally expected to be delivered by a court in Turin, in Europe’s biggest environmental health case.
Two asbestos industrialists face a possible 20 years in prison if convicted on charges they failed to protect workers of their company.
Nicola Pondrano, an ex-Eternit worker, said: “We call it dust in Casale… and we say: ‘I’ve got the dust in my lungs.’”
Raffaele Guariniello, a Turin public prosecutor, said: “Crimes… travel at the speed of light. The justice system… still moves carefully.”
Romana Blasotti Pavesi, President of Asbestos Victims’ Families in Casale, said: “I try very hard not to think about it. When my daughter died, I found I couldn’t cry any more.”
One of the biggest environmental cases ever to come to trial in Europe began around two years ago in the northern Italian city of Turin.
An asbestos cement multinational called Eternit was in the dock – or rather, its last two owners were. Eternit has factories in Italy, Switzerland, France and South America.
Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgian industry baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne were accused of violating safety rules, ignoring workers’ health. The two risked 20 years in prison if convicted.
The day of judgement: February 13, 2012. If found guilty in Italy, prosecution could go ahead in other countries.
Public Prosecutor Guariniello said: “The big choice made was to try to establish responsibility for fundamental decisions in the company. The people who decided what to spend, how to spend it, what to do… were not Italians. They were first the Belgians and then the Swiss.”
Astolfo Di Amato, defence lawyer for industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, insisted that: “When Stephan Schmidheiny became the company’s chief executive in 1976, its branches in Italy had turned zero profit, and it had invested what was an enormous sum at the time – 73 billion lire – on safety.”
Between 1906 and 1986, the city of Casale Monferrato, not far from Turin, was home to the biggest asbestos cement factory in Europe. It contributed to the region’s economic development. But the people who worked here paid a terrible price. And they are still paying it.
Since 1947, 1,800 have died from pleural mesothelioma, an untreatable cancer. It did not only attack the workers in Eternit but also the population who had never set foot in the factory.
Bruno Pesce, head of an association fighting on behalf of former Eternit workers and their families, in an impeccably organised and austere office said: “All these white files are on the workers who died. The pink ones are other citizens of Casale, unfortunately also dead from mesothelioma; the green ones are those still living but who have the cancer. The yellow ones are for all the former Eternit workers who are ill.”
Nicola Pondrano, the former Eternit worker, and also head of the CGL Union of Casale, said: “When Eternit closed down, declaring operations unviable in 1986, the workers were right alongside Bruno and me – not against us: with us.”
Bruno Pesce said: “In the years following the closure, the fight kept spreading throughout the territory, to go after three objectives: justice, rehabilitation and health research.”
Today, Casale counts an average of around fifty asbestos victims per year, most of them aged between 40 and 60, people who breathed in the fibres before the factory closed.
Dottoressa Daniela De Giovanni, oncologist at the Santo Spirito Hospital of Casale, said: “The inhabitants of Casale are afraid of becoming ill. That adds psychological suffering to physical suffering. It’s the fear that the same illness that struck a friend, a parent or a loved one can strike us too.”
Romana Pavesi, the victims’ association chair, lost her husband – an Eternit worker – and her sister, a cousin and daughter to cancer.
Romana said: “In 2004, one day my daughter came to me. She had done all the tests. She was sure. She told me, ‘Mama, sit down. I have to tell you something. I have it too.’ I was devastated. It was the last thing I expected. I took her in my arms and told her: ‘I won’t let you go.’ But I knew very well there was nothing I could do. I had been through the thing before. It was very hard with her. She went fast, but she suffered terribly.”
The doctor, De Giovanni, said: “There is a kind of acceptance with other kinds of cancer, a resignation to accept one’s destiny. But not with mesothelioma. The cause is known. It has nothing to do with chance. There is a culprit. And often there is a rage against the guilty party.”
Romana said: “This won’t stop here, not even after 30 years of struggle. Medical research is not certain about this, and the rehabilitation isn’t over. That’s why this fight has to go on.”