Elisa Privitera, University of Catania.
A General Overlook: Regulations about Risk, Democracy, and Socio-Environmental Injustice
Catastrophic events have been direct and indirect triggers of policy changes concerning the assessment and mitigation of risk. The Seveso Directives, which represent the main European laws on industrial risk, are an emblematic case since they were issued after the catastrophic event that occurred at the ICMESA’s chemical plant in Meda (Lombardy, Italy) in 1976 and that went down in history under the name of “Seveso disaster”. Since then, both awareness by citizens and public institutions and debates in academic and scientific circles on risk have led to many changes, such as the introduction of national, European and international regulations which aimed to prevent or mitigate possible hazards. However, the Seveso disaster not only has shown the need for societies committed to facing self-produced risk (Beck, 1986) to create new risk-related regulations, but it has also unveiled how risk involves all of the environmental matrices.
If the Seveso accident marked a turning point in risk-related issues coming from sudden catastrophic events, what about silent and invisible disasters, such as the ones caused by slow pollution and contamination? Have they influenced law, and, if not, how can they do so?
While fast-moving hazards can be relatively simple to calculate through quantitative and probabilistic tools, big data and algorithms, diffused hazards require a more complex approach conceiving risk as a socio-eco-systematic-landscape phenomenon involving human and not-human communities living and interacting with the environment. For instance, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted by UN members in 2015, strives towards a holistic approach to risk assessment inseparable from the enhancement of democratic processes designed to evaluate and manage it. Consistent with principle n. 10 of the Rio de Janeiro Declaration (1992), proclaiming “the right of citizens to access environmental information held by public authorities”, and with the Aarhus Convention (1998), stating the crucial role of public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, the Sendai Framework supports a multi-dimensional and multi-sector risk approach based on the following: inclusive governance, open and accessible data systems, the intersection between scientific local knowledge and practices, and the involvement of all stakeholders, including women, children and youth, persons with disabilities, migrants, volunteers, the community of practitioners, and older persons.
While the Sendai Framework deals with the implementation of risk management by way of wider democratisation of the decision-making process, other international documents focus more on the disparate impacts of environmental health risks. For instance, the Parma Declaration on Environment and Health (WHO report, 2010) requires the State’s commitment to taking measures to reduce social and gender inequalities in health risks by promoting local actions and ensuring active participation in the European Environment and Health Process. The Declaration of Ostrava (2017) claims that people living in adverse socioeconomic conditions in Europe can suffer twice as much as their wealthier neighbours, if not more, from multiple environmental exposures. Previous studies have adopted the lens of environmental justice to unveil the connections between socioeconomic and health inequalities and the distribution of industrial facilities (Chakraborty and Basu, 2018; Jephcote, 2019; Walker et al., 2007), waste dumps (Baabereyir et al., 2012; Martuzzi et al., 2010; Mohai and Saha, 2007), and mines (Gaventa, 1980) to the detriment of powerless communities.
In short, regardless of social class, gender, ethnicity or geographical location, no one is exempt from the risk society, i.e. a society dealing with hazards and insecurities induced and introduced by modernisation itself (Beck, 1992: 21). The possibility to mitigate environmental and health risk effects depends largely on socioeconomic status and accessible knowledge. Therefore, as acknowledged by the aforementioned documents, to deal with the risk means to deal with socioeconomic justice.
The Shortcomings of the Italian Legislation on Industrial Risk
Despite international debate discussing risk as a socio-eco-systematic-landscape concept, the European (Altiero and Dakli, 2015) and Italian regulations still need improvements. In Italy, there is no holistic legislative framework on risk; rather, each type of risk (seismic, hydraulic, environmental, etc.) is regulated by a specific law. This results in a fragmented patchwork of decrees, emergency ordinances, and special resolutions. According to Filippo Gravagno and Salvo Messina (2008: 14), these normative weaknesses are even more patent in the Italian legislation on contaminated areas, since it still does not consider risk as an eco-systematic phenomenon percolating into all entangled environmental components underlying the landscape. The Seveso II Directive, in particular, was initially adopted in regards to the control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances (96/82/EC). When it was replaced by the Seveso III Directive (2012/18/EU) in Italy through Legislative Decree 105/15, a series of relevant issues were introduced: technical updates on the classification of dangerous substances; accessible information, justice, and participation in decision making for citizens; measures to improve the availability and sharing of information. Bruna De Marchi, a sociologist specialised in public participation in health and environmental and disaster policies, emphasises that, among the effects of Seveso III, there is “the recognition of the need and importance of an extended responsibility, founded on the commitment and participation of a multiplicity of actors” (2001: 177).
Despite these innovative aspects, when scrutinising the current law, it emerges that:
1) Legislative Decree 105/15 concerns “relevant accidents” (Art.3) only, such as fires, explosions, and leaks of toxic substances. This means that the diffused, slow contamination seeping day by day into the environmental matrices and human and non-human bodies is not taken into consideration.
2) Legislative Decree 105/15 promotes the publication of information about harmful events or the extension of industrial plants (Art.23). Nevertheless, such public involvement is mostly unidirectional, highly bureaucratised (Art.24), and lacks the desired transparency and co-production of knowledge, as for example in the Sendai Framework and in the open science movement (Elliot, 2019).
3) Legislative Decree 152/06 regarding the decontamination of SINs (Sites of National Interest), which are highly contaminated areas classified as dangerous by the Italian State and in need of decontamination, is insufficient since remediation works are mandatory only in proximity to the source of contamination (Art. 240). The diffused socio-economic-cultural damages and loss through the ecosystem are currently not considered, rather only the discrete and punctual ones.
It is worth noting that action by planners seemed unable to mitigate the above-mentioned normative limitations. As they have been mainly prone to modelling through algorithms, big data, and quantitative methods, the planners have often inadequately analysed contaminated landscapes where the potential damage is neither predictable nor fast-moving, in terms of both time and space. On the contrary, the potential contamination harm affecting an extensive area is always diffused into all its human and non-human elements; it is thus reductive to simply predict or strictly model it.
Small Data and Toxic Autobiographies from Fieldwork in Gela
To envision a different planning approach that challenges the inadequate Italian normative framework on industrial risk, the LabPEAT -Laboratory for the Environmental and Ecologic Design of Territory, coordinated by Prof Filippo Gravagno at the University of Catania, and the Environmental Humanities Laboratory, coordinated by Prof Marco Armiero at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, are exploring a hybrid field between environmental history, political ecology, environmental justice and urban studies.
If the landscape is considered as “an area as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and human factors” (European Landscape Convention, 2000: 2), it becomes indeed a privileged conceptual tool used to understand the threefold relationship between humans, nature and society (Pizziolo, 2000: 56) and to discover both nature in society and society in nature (Armiero, 2008: 60). Far from being unequivocally linear and deterministic, such links are often complex and polysemic (Pizziolo, 2007: 8). They can only be interpreted through the ensemble of relational information embodied in the complex composition of human and non-human communities. This “small data” can only be captured using a street science (Corburn, 2005) “made with feet”, active listening (Sclavi, 2003) and toxic autobiographies i.e. personal stories of contamination and resistance (Armiero et al., 2019: 3). Our aim is to collect as many toxic autobiographies as possible in order to make these stories visible and sabotage mainstream narratives with counter-hegemonic storytelling through a geo-blog and the website Toxic Bios.
This relational approach, based on small data and toxic autobiographies, has been experimentally conducted during three months of fieldwork in Gela, a Sicilian town (Figures 1 and 2). In the 1960s, Gela was converted into one of the main Italian petrochemical complexes by the multinational company ENI as part of a public policy aiming, at that time, to fill the North-South economic gap by industrialising the Southern regions. Nevertheless, the construction of the refinery disappointed most, as initial hopes of increased employment and development remained unrealised. As a matter of fact, in addition to being a case of failure of top-down industrialisation (Hytten and Marchioni, 1970; Giarrizzo, 1992; Triglia, 1992) and of controversial relations between big capital and marginal places (Saitta, 2011), the industrialisation of Gela embodies the silent and violent alteration of local ecosystems (Nixon, 2011), including the human body. The contamination, penetrating human and non-human bodies, reveals the porosity between all the components of the socio-eco-system underlying the risk landscapes and represents a practical example of what Stacy Alaimo has defined the trans-corporeality of toxicity, where trans-corporeality means that all creatures are intermeshed with the dynamic, material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them; then the toxicity goes into all of them.
For these reasons, Gela constitutes a blend of inequalities, social distress, and health diseases along with resistant and resilient actions. Gela is indeed a quintessential case for debating how to plan and to reckon with current and future risk landscapes.
Gela was included in the list of Areas at High Risk of Environmental Crisis in 1990 and it was declared a SIN in 1998. Since then, the State has spent € 20,511,294 to remediate 795 ha of contaminated land and 4,583 ha of contaminated seacoast. Nevertheless, as reported by both the Regional Agency for the Environmental Protection (2017) and the Environmental Data Yearbook compiled by ISPRA (the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, 2019: 113), the preliminary bureaucratic procedures and studies concerning the remediation works (so-called “piano di caratterizzazione”) have been already accomplished, while the soil and sea remediation works entirely completed amounts to 0% thus far. Meanwhile, several epidemiological studies have investigated an increase of diseases that is also corroborated by the residents’ tales of daily life in Gela.
The truth is… a carnage is occurring! I witness daily tragedies that affect all of us. For example, the recent story of the son of a relative’s niece upsets me. Doctors diagnose a child’s brain tumour before it’s time for him to be born. When the child is born, three days after birth, he undergoes the first operation to eliminate cancer and, after a month from his birth, he starts chemotherapy. The children of Gela are born with many problems. And this reveals that something is going wrong. (Interview with a resident)
Studies carried out by the University of Messina (Granata et al., 2011; Salvo et al., 2018) have observed critical values of harmful substances in the samples of aquifers and local vegetables, such as artichokes and tomatoes grown in the plain of Gela (Figures 3 and 4).
Despite the high levels of pollution making the water and products unsuitable for human consumption or for agriculture, the water is regularly used to irrigate the fields and the harvest is then commercialised. During our fieldwork, however, conversations with local farmers have highlighted their own scepticism about the presence of toxic substances in their products. On the contrary, they maintained the unquestionable suitability of their products for human consumption. This discrepancy between official scientific research results and local awareness sheds light on the inadequate exchange between both fields of knowledge. To further confirm how the experimentation of street science is fundamental, other small data and biographies prove that the contamination does not only concern the areas within the borders of the plant, but rather spreads into all layers of Gela’s socio-ecosystem.
In the summer, during my childhood, […] the sea was often full of tar when we played on the beach. I remember it was a very common thing to have our feet stained with tar. (Interview with a local activist)
The small data and toxic autobiographies collected during the fieldwork comprise a complex and complete cognitive framework of Gela’s risk landscapes. The data fulfils the guidelines of the Sendai Framework, the Aarhus Convention and other international documents, as residents uncovered toxic narratives centred on structural environmental injustice and co-produced knowledge that increases the empowerment and collective capabilities of local communities (Rosignoli, 2018) as well as initiating them to social learning (Collins and Ison, 2009), which is a key factor in the improvement of democracy and sustainability (Fischer, 2017). Starting from this first period of experimentations, walks, and meetings, such a relational approach made up of small data and toxic autobiographies highlighted the shortcomings of the current Italian normative framework on industrial risk, especially:
– The obtuseness of the current legislation for what concerns significant involvement of the citizenship in the process of evaluation, knowledge exchange, and planning regarding contaminated areas;
– The existing limitations of considering discrete accidents only, excluding diffuse damages to the ecosystem, which affect the conceptualisation and law about remediation works too.
This relational approach also directs attention towards future challenges on how to insert small data and toxic autobiographies into both legislation and current planning praxis in Italy. This is an avenue that still needs to be probed and explored.
 Other examples are the 1884 cholera epidemics in Naples that led the national government to issue the “Legge per il risanamento di Napoli” (Law for the rehabilitation of Naples) which brought into the urban planning field a series of hygienic-sanitarian aspects aimed to reduce health and contamination hazards, above all in the peripheral areas. Another example, slightly more than a century later, is the Chernobyl disaster, which influenced the popular referendum that was held in Italy on 8-9 November 1987 and resulted in a ban on nuclear plants, as narrated in the book Il virus del benessere (Saverio, 2009: 170-188).
 Industrie Chimiche Meda Società Azionaria was a Swiss chemical industry that operated in the city of Meda, on the border with the municipality of Seveso.
 For more information on the Seveso case, see Centemeri, 2006; Galimberti, Citterio and Losa, 1977; Ramondetta and Repossi, 1988.
 Sendai Framework: 13 and 15.
 Sendai Framework: 10.
 Introduced by the Legislative Decree 22/97, modified by Legislative Decree 152/06, the SIN areas are 58 in total.
 The Italian urban planner Bernardo Secchi coined the expression “urban planning made by feet” in a series of open lectures held in 2013-2014.
 Eni S.p.A. is an Italian multinational oil and gas company, created by the Italian state as a public enterprise in 1953, then converted into a joint-stock company in 1992. It is currently the world’s 11th largest industrial company.
 The three epidemiological studies carried out so far are the following: Sebiomag, SEpiAs, and Sentieri.
Alaimo S (2018) Trans-Corporeality. In: Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova (eds.). Posthuman Glossary. (Bloomsbury).
Altiero S, Dakli G (2015) Meeting Environmental Justice. A Critical Review of Environmental Policies’ Challenges in the European Union. http://cdca.it/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/pbDraftok_march15.pdf
Armiero M (2008) Seeing Like a Protester: Nature, Power, and Environmental Struggles Left History 13 (1): 59-76.
Armiero M, Andritsos T, Barca S, Bràs R., Cayuela S.R, Dedeoǧlu Ç, Pierri M D, De Oliveira Fernandesisa L, Gravagno F, Greco L, Greyl L, Iengo I, Lindblom J, Milanez F, Pedro S, Pappalardo G, Petrillo A, Portaluri M, Privitera E, Sari A C, Velegrakis G (2019) Toxic Bios: Toxic Autobiographies – A Public Environmental Humanities Project Environmental Justice 12 (1): 1-5.
ARPA – Regional Agency for the Protection of the Environment (2017) Aggiornamenti sullo stato dell’arte dei procedimenti di bonifica nei siti di Gela e Priolo, https://www.arpa.sicilia.it/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Bonifiche-SIN-Gela-e-Priolo-Aggiornamento-2.pdf
Baabereyir A, Jewitt S, O’Hara S (2012) Dumping on the Poor: The Ecological Distribution of Accra’s Solid-Waste Burden Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 44 (2): 297-314.
Beck U (1992) Risk society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage.
Bianchi F et al. (2013) Progetto SEpiAs CCM 2010. Sorveglianza epidemiologica in aree interessate da inquinamento ambientale da arsenico di origine naturale o antropica. http://www.ccm-network.it/imgs/C_27_MAIN_progetto_7_listaFile_List11_itemName_0_file.pdf
Centemeri L (2006) Ritorno a Seveso. Il danno ambientale, il suo riconoscimento, la sua riparazione. Milano: Bruno Mondadori.
Chakraborty J, Basu P (2019) Linking Industrial Hazards and Social Inequalities: Environmental Injustice in Gujarat, India Environmental Research and Public Health 16 (42): 1-13.
Collins K, Ison R (2009) Jumping off Arnstein’s Ladder: Social Learning as a New Policy Paradigm for Climate Change Adaptation Environmental Policy Governance 19 (6): 358–373.
Corburn J (2005) Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
De Marchi B (2001) Rischio e ambiente nell’Unione Europea. In: Bruna De Marchi, Luigi Pellizzoni, Daniele Ungaro (eds.), Il rischio ambientale. Bologna: il Mulino, pp. 177-192.
Elliot K C, Resnik D B (2019) Making Open Science Work for Science and Society Environmental Health Perspectives 127 (7): 1-6.
Fischer F (2017) Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Galimberti M, Citterio G, Losa L (1977) Seveso. La tragedia della diossina. Besana Brianza: Edizioni Gr.
Gaventa J (1980) Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: University of Illinois.
Giarrizzo G (1992) Mezzogiorno senza meridionalismo. La Sicilia, lo sviluppo e il potere. Venice: Marsilio editore.
Granata T, Alfa M, Giuffrida D, Rando R, Dugo G (2011) Contaminazione da piombo, cadmio e rame di prodotti alimentari nell’area a rischio di Gela Epidemiologia e Prevenzione 35 (1): 1-7.
Gravagno F, Messina S (2008) I paesaggi del rischio: Priolo e il prezzo del progresso. Catania: ed.it.
Hytten E, Marchioni M (1970) Industrializzazione senza sviluppo. Gela: una storia meridionale. Milan: Franco Angeli.
Institute of Clinical Physiology of CNR-National Research Council (2009) Rapporto SEBIOMAG Studio epidemiologico biomonitoraggio nell’area di Gela. http://ambiente-salute.it/wp-content/uploads/report-sebiomag-LUGLIO-2009.pdf
ISPRA – Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (2019) Environmental Data Yearbook. http://www.isprambiente.gov.it/public_files/annuario-2018.pdf
Jephcot D (2019) Petrochemical Landscapes: A European Perspective Toxic News 15(5). https://toxicnews.org/2019/05/28/petrochemical-landscapes-a-european-perspective/
Martuzzi M, Mitis F, Forastiere F (2010) Inequalities, Inequities, Environmental Justice in Waste Management and Health European Journal of Public Health 20(1): 21-26.
Mohai P, Saha R (2007) Racial Inequality in the Distribution of Hazardous Waste: A National-Level Reassessment Social Problems 54 (3): 343–370.
Nixon R (2011) Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pizziolo G (2000) Toward an Ecology of Planning Plurimondi 2(4): 51-60.
Pizziolo G (2007) Il fiume, il segno e generatore di paesaggio Ri-Vista Ricerche per la progettazione del paesaggio 5 (7): 5-12.
Ramondetta R, Repossi A (1988) Seveso vent’anni dopo. Dall’incidente al bosco delle querce. Milano: Fondazione Lombardia per l’Ambiente.
Rosignoli F (2018) Categorizing Collective Capabilities Partecipazione e conflitto 11 (3): 813-837.
Saitta P (2009) Spazi e società a rischio. Ecologia, petrolio e mutamento a Gela. Napoli: Think Thank.
Salvo A, La Torre G L, Mangano V, Casale K E, Bartolomeo G, Santini A, Granata T, Dugo G (2018) Toxic Inorganic Pollutants in Foods from Agricultural Producing Areas of Southern Italy: Level and Risk Assessment Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 148: 114-124.
Saverio L (2009) Il virus del benessere. Bari: Editori Laterza.
Sclavi M (2003) L’arte di ascoltare e mondi possibili. Milano: Bruno Mondadori.
Triglia C (1992) Sviluppo senza autonomia. Effetti perversi della politiche nel Mezzogiorno. Il Mulino.
Walker G, Mitchell G, Fairburn J, Smith G (2005) Industrial Pollution and Social Deprivation: Evidence and Complexity in Evaluating and Responding to Environmental Inequality Local Environment 10 (4): 361-377.
Zona A et al. (2019) Sentieri. Epidemiological Study of Residents in National Priority Contaminated Sites. Fifth Report Epidemiologia & Prevenzione 43(2-3). http://www.epiprev.it/materiali/2019/EP2-3_Suppl1/SENTIERI_FullText.pdf