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Polluted River a Symptom of Italy’s Environmental Suffering

August 9, 1989

MILAN, Italy (AP) _ Generations of fishermen reaped a bounty from the Lambro River before it became laced with garbage, smelly sewage and pesticides.

Today the Italy beloved by poets, authors and artists hides much of its legendary beauty in a pall of smog, acres of concrete and millions of tons of industrial waste and urban garbage. Its waters are becoming poisoned, its landscape scarred, its forests withered by acid rain.

Ecologists see the Lambro as one symptom of Italy’s allergic reaction to its own 20th century. They say its fetid banks are a result of the feverish postwar economic expansion.

Chemical wastes and agricultural runoff contaminate the Lambro as it flows like a sewer through Italy’s industrial heartland, from near Lake Como past Milan to just west of Piacenza where it empties into the Po.

The Po, the country’s longest and most polluted river, winds through some of Italy’s most fertile farmland before it spills its toxins into the increasingly endangered Adriatic Sea.

″The Lambro is responsible for 30 percent of the total pollution in the Po,″ said Gianfranco Mascazzini, an environmental official with Lombardy’s regional government. ″So the pollution is not only a problem because of what it does in Lombardy, but also because of what it does to the Po and the Adriatic.″

Still, he noted, the pollution is seeping into Lombardy’s soil and beginning to contaminate the aquifier that supplies 90 percent of Milan’s drinking water.

A year ago the government approved a five-year, $3.55 billion-project to clean the air, soil and water around the Lambro. It hailed the plan as a model, one that could lead to $22 billion in additional spending if extended to the rest of Italy.

The work has not begun.

It has been stalled primarily by political squabbling common at all layers of Italian government. Various local governments and private industry have fought over their share of the financing and control of the project.

Environmental groups maintain the plan is just another temporary remedy doomed to fail because it will not do enough to fight the sources of pollution.

Mario Zerbini, a spokesman for the environmental Greens Party, and Michele Mauri, a World Wildlife Fund ecologist, contend the government is too strongly allied with big business, lacks the political will to confront long-term problems and reacts only to emergencies, such as the current algae invasion along Adriatic coastal resorts.

A recent Ministry of the Environment report noted that Italy has only the capacity to legally dispose of about 30 percent of the 97.4 million tons of waste it produces each year, including 3.8 million tons considered toxic or dangerous.

The report said half the 1,600 water purification plants in cities with a total population of 23 million don’t work. It added that 2 million people in other cities drink water tainted with herbicides and pesticides.

The ministry said at least half the trees in Italian forests suffer damage from acid rain. In 1987 alone, it said, Italy coughed 380,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, 2 percent of the Earth’s emissions of the gas that is considered a major contributor to the ″Greenhouse Effect,″ or warming of the planet.

″Italy was relatively slow to come to awareness about its evironmental problems,″ said Christopher Flavin, a vice president with the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

″Compared to northern Europe the air and water quality is worse ... and Italy has a lot more toxic wastes. It is a result of its lagging policies,″ Flavin said in a telephone interview.

Environment Minister Giorgio Ruffolo said earlier this year that the government hopes to reduce pollution by 35 percent to 40 percent over five years. And Mascazzini, the Lombardy environmental official, argues the Lambro plan is a new beginning toward that end.

″We agree that it is no longer possible to arrive at conclusive, effective environmental results by confronting the problems a piece at a time,″ Mascazzini said. ″The Lambro plan is an attempt to better organize the realization of so many things, so many projects.″

Its intent is to restore the land area between the Lambro, Seveso and Olona rivers. It would build five new water purification plants and enlarge 40 others, construct new sewer networks, pumping stations and waste treatment plants.

The plan also would invest millions of dollars to clean the air, muffle the noise, build new parks and nature reserves and add safeguards to high-risk industries in densely populated areas.

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