ROSIGNANO SOLVAY, Italy – A boy who can only be about four or five years old splashes in the turquoise shallows of le spiagge bianche, the famously white beaches off the coast of Tuscany that look more like the Maldives than they do the Mediterranean. From the shoreline, Maurizio Marchi watches, expressionless. The boy might be wearing inflatable armbands, but for Marchi, he is far from safe. Marchi works with a local cooperative that fights for health rights, Medicina Democratica, and has spent decades campaigning against a massive chemical plant that looms nearby.
The factory, run by the Belgian multinational Solvay, makes soda ash before discharging its waste directly into the sea – about 200m away from where the boy is swimming.
“Solvay has discharged [waste] into the sea since 1917. It’s estimated that there are about 500 tons of mercury in the seabed,” Marchi said, referring back to a widely-cited 2008 study from a local environment agency that said Solvay had discharged 400 tons of mercury over 65 years.
But there’s a flipside to this story. Over all these decades, the Belgian company has also brought jobs and investment into the town; not only is the local primary school named after its founder Ernest Solvay, the whole town has now taken on the name Rosignano Solvay.
So is the water safe; is the area as a whole safe? There has been a long back and forth between local environmental agencies saying the effluent contains harmful metals like mercury, lead and arsenic, and Solvay insisting that they are inert, that it’s just limestone and that it actually helps prevent coastal erosion. In a document published earlier this year, Solvay said: “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, including people and fish." Ultimately, no one knows definitively – because the study that would finally establish whether there was a relationship between pollutant exposure and chronic-degenerative diseases has never happened. It has been waiting for funding from the local government for four years.
“I don’t know why the mayor is hindering the study,” said Claudio Marabotti, one of the researchers behind the proposed study, to VICE World News over email. Back in 2016, his first study into Rosignano found a significant excess in mortality for chronic diseases, the presence of pollutants across air and sea, and a theoretical link between these pollutants and poorer health of the locals. What is now waiting for funding in the city hall is a second-level study that would geographically assess pollutant and disease levels and determine whether such exposure is causing these illnesses. It has an estimated cost of €40,000 (about £33,600), and would require 12 months of data-gathering once it is greenlit.
“In my opinion, this study is absolutely necessary and cannot be further postponed,” Marabotti said. “Obviously, we could have a risk for public health that should be recognised and reduced as soon as possible. Moreover, in the case no relationship was found, this could in turn have a positive effect on tourism, not really hampered by the reputation of being a polluted place.”
VICE World News visited the beach at Rosignano Solvay on a clear day where there were hundreds of tourists, many of them Italians from other regions in the country as well as visitors from northern European countries like Germany and the Netherlands.
The fear of damaging tourism is echoed by Francesco Berti, a Tuscan representative in Italy’s national government, who believes this is one of the reasons that the study has been delayed. “I have spent years of my mandate to Solvay, I’ve asked many written questions to [the] government to change what is happening,” Berti said.
While Berti was successful in winning the area enough scrutiny to prompt a visit from the UN’s special rapporteur on toxics and human rights in December, the results of the investigation are yet to be published and in the meantime the Italian government renewed Solvay’s permit to operate for another 15 years.
Marchi, the local health environmentalist, shrugs: “They have the money. They just don’t have the will.” He said that the local government had previously told him that Marabotti’s second study had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in September last year, VICE World News reported how Vogue Italia had glamorised the local area in its front cover without pointing out the chemical plant next to it; several hotels nearby also advertise their proximity to the ‘renowned white beaches’ without mentioning the area’s history.
Criticism has continued, without any movement in funding for Marabotti’s study. In April, Bloomberg uncovered documents from a 2013 criminal court hearing in which Solvay’s soda-ash unit had been found to have pumped out effluent with mercury at six times the legal limit, which led to a plea bargain and fines for two employees. Bloomberg reported that Solvay “disputes the prosecutors’ findings, saying the levels of heavy metals in its discharges didn’t violate the law then, and they don’t now”.
Bluebell Capital Partners, activist investors with shares in Solvay, accused the company in June of publishing an “embarrassingly amateurish” self-audit claiming that the metals in their effluent are “protective of human health and the marine environment and therefore do not create any hazard.”
Giovanni Santangelo, a professor of zoology at the University of Pisa, told VICE World News that there has been significant damage to the seabed because the level of sediment has blocked sunlight from reaching the ocean floor, saying: “The seabed is normally extremely alive; smothering it in a layer of calcium carbonate is equivalent to sterilising it.”
Berti and Marabotti also share another concern – the close connections between Solvay and Rosignano’s local government. There are two new hires at a landfill site north of Rosignano claiming to be “the factory of the future”; Marco Colatarci, the director of Solvay Italia, will become its president and Alessandro Franchi, former mayor of Rosignano Marittimo, the local administrative area Rosignano Solvay is in, will become its CEO. Roberto Cingolani, Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition who renewed Solvay’s permit in January, also has history with the company; less than a year before becoming minister, the defence company he was senior executive of had concluded a venture with Solvay.
“We’re not saying Solvay needs to close,” Marchi said. “We want them to environmentalise – to not unload in the sea anymore, to not use freshwater anymore that is already scarce and should be used by the local people, and finally that it radically reduces the pollution in the air.”
VICE World News made repeated attempts to contact local authorities in Rosignano Marittimo, the area where the town is in, but received no response, other than an email informing us that the mayor was not in the office this week. “Upon his return, we will make sure that your request is received,” a spokesperson said.
A Solvay spokesperson told VICE World News that the ecological status of the water bodies in the area of Rosignano have been classified by the local environmental agency ARPAT as “excellent”, and that the same body also rated all 17 testing points in the bathing waters of Tuscany as “excellent” including the two in front of the factory site.
“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, including people and fish. Heavy metals concentrations have never been reported over limit in water nor biota [animal and plant life],” a spokesperson said.
They added that Colatarci, the director of Solvay Italia, is retiring from Solvay in 2022 and that the facility is committed to lowering its carbon emissions, which has included installing technology to reuse the soda ash plant’s emissions and reusing municipal wastewater.
The day VICE World News visited Rosignano Europe was sweltering in a heatwave – sunbathers and swimmers here were basking in temperatures of around 34 degrees Celsius. “It means that the vapours of the mercury will be at their strongest,” Marchi says, scanning the beach, looking once more at the boy in the armbands. “It’s the children who are most sensitive to it.”
Tourists – domestic or foreign –don’t seem to mind. They’ve heard about Solvay, but what they’ve heard more about are how famously white these beaches are. “We’re not worried,” said one woman from the north of Italy, “but we’re just swimming. There are people, children, families who live here. Maybe it is worse for them.”