From one side of Massimo Vitali’s lens, the crisp white-sand beach of Rosignano lives up to its reputation as “the Maldives of Tuscany,” glittering in the sunlight as models frolic in its shallows. “Water is a symbol par excellence of regeneration, redemption, and a return to life,” the famed Italian photographer said after shooting this month’s Vogue Italia front cover. Too bad, then, that environmentalists in Italy have expressed worries that the water could be harming local residents.
Because if the models and Vitali turned around, they’d see the other side of the camera – the looming towers of a chemical factory that look more like Mr Burns’s nuclear power plant than the Maldives.
The plant is owned and operated by chemical company Solvay, which is headquartered in Belgium. It’s the company’s only soda ash and bicarbonate production facility in Europe where waste products are discharged directly into the sea – “natural limestone” that also happens to have high levels of chemicals such as mercury, according to Tuscan environmental agency ARPAT.
Solvay acknowledges that the “powdery limestone” it discharges into the nearby sea is partially responsible for giving the nearby sand its gleaming white colour. But it also insists the waste is non-toxic. Solvay has said it has done much to change things since 1999, when the UN rated the area as one of the 15 most polluted coastal sites in the Mediterranean. On its site, it says it has “decreased waste production by improving recycling practices.”
But in 2017, fish washed up on the shoreline due to the abnormal levels of ammonia Solvay had dumped into local waters. In 2019, the Rosignano coastline still had “several abnormalities in the concentration of mercury and hexachlorobenzene in the water bodies” according to ARPAT, which observed that chemical levels in the water were above the legal limit. Despite this, the agency, which tests the water regularly, still deems the water ‘excellent’ for swimming in and in accordance with regulations.
Data on how any of this actually affects the local area is hard to come by, although in 2017 the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health published a study in which scientists found that an excess of mortality for chronic-degenerative diseases was found in this area of the Tuscan coast. “Proximity to industrial plants seems to represent a risk factor for those diseases,” concluded the authors.
The Vogue Italia cover was published at the end of a summer in which there has been renewed scrutiny of Rosignano online. This summer has seen a spike in Google searches of Rosignano from Italy, higher than usual; Simone Guida, an Italian YouTuber with over 465,000 subscribers who covers geopolitics on his channel Nova Lectio, got over 650,000 views for his video “We need to talk about Rosignano Solvay” in July. “People have always known these problems, but it’s only been on traditional media,” he said. “Nobody really took it onto social media before.”
TikTokkers who saw his video ran with the story. @ciaosasha got 2.1 million views for her video, which she included in her “eco crimes” series and then added another video about the Vogue cover too. Those videos then sparked @stellac.real to talk about the cover and Rosignano, in a TikTok that got 250,000 videos. There are plenty of comments from local residents who seem unbothered, even resigned to any possible environmental concerns – but others are clearly disturbed. Many Italian commenters wrote that they had never even heard about the situation.
When VICE World News raised the concerns of environmentalists to Vogue Italia, it did not respond directly, but instead published an update on the cover on its website. The update says that the cover was intended to raise awareness about the environmental question Rosignano Solvay represents, and says that the magazine could have made this clearer “In no way was it intended to glorify a polluted beach and the title could have been clearer in addressing the complex and layered meaning behind the image in-book,” the clarification says. At the time of publication, this update exists only in English on the Vogue Italia site, where everything else is written in Italian.
The Solvay factory has played an enormous role for the Rosignano community, literally building it; since the chemical factory was first introduced in 1913 because of its proximity to the sea and a nearby salt-mine, Solvay has built many other things for the locals, including housing and schools. Rosignano Solvay, the name of the area, is literally named after the company. On Rosignano’s official tourism website, the coast is the first attraction it advertises – and just like Vogue, it shows no view of the chemical towers.
Fausto Ferruzza, president of the Tuscan division of the environmental group Legambiente, told VICE World News that the history of Solvay in Tuscany was “complex” and represented the “contradictions of a development that has been unsustainable for decades.”
“Today, with EU regulations and directives that are rightly more and more severe, the challenge has shifted to the quality and healthiness of their production and on the mandatory reclamation of iconic sites such as that of Rosignano,” he said via WhatsApp.
In an Italian television report in 2019, Lucia Rocchi, who is in charge of the Livorno branch of ARPAT said: “It’s a contradiction. It’s used as as a touristic attraction – but for us, it’s inacceptable.”
This summer, it looks like YouTubers and TikTokkers were more effective in raising awareness around the beach than traditional media. Solvay confirmed to VICE World News that a video they released last month on its YouTube account was uploaded to counter increased social media attention. In it, the company assures viewers that the natural limestone it discharges is safe, within regulations and “helps stabilise the shore against erosion.” In an emailed statement, a Solvay spokesperson said that in thearea where it discharges waste, water quality and environmental conditions are consistent with the rest of the Tuscan coast.
“We understand public concerns about our effluent in Rosignano, including interest generated on social media, and are committed to maintaining an open dialogue with anyone interested in learning more about the safety of our operations,” the spokesperson said.
“We hope that users who are confronted with misinformation on social media about Solvay's plant will dive deeper into the facts, consult our website and/or other credible sources, before drawing any conclusions.”
The Vogue Italia cover may yet spur action. A member of the Chamber of Deputies, Francesco Berti of the populist M5S party, said he would be writing a letter to Vogue, given the area’s well documented historical environmental damage. With regards to Vitali’s “new beginning” message, Berti wrote in a Facebook post: “There is nothing more hypocritical, false and cruel.”