The contamination and transformation of the landscape in Gela, Italy A case by Elisa Privitera
Gela is an emblematic site to explore the interaction of industrialization processes, environmental degradation, and reverse migratory patterns. The analysis of this case will rely on two conceptual tools: trans-corporeality (Alaimo 2015) and slow violence (Nixon 2011).
Firstly, it can be framed as a case of environmental contamination highlighting the link between the toxic waste results from industrial processes the surrounding ecosystems, both human and non-human. Secondly, the effects of this massive environmental transformations have spanned over decades and in a hardly visible and readable ways. It is worth to point out that the current harms in Gela are the product of a long and slow contamination process, in contrast to other cases in which harms come from sudden disastrous events.
Concerning social aspects, the building of the industrial plant entailed the transformation of a rural and fishing community into a working-class community and the temporary development of a highly populated town, Gela, that nowadays is under depopulation process.
In the 1960 Gela, a small town in Sicily, was chosen by the multinational oil and gas company ENI S.p.A as one of the main petrochemical poles in Italy. According to Alexander Tabi (2016), the construction of the petrochemical factory in Gela was in line with the international and national expansion of that sector in the 1960s; thereby, it was an easy option to invest on it in order to reduce the economic gap between the North and the South of Italy. In fact, in a few years three petrochemical poles were created in Sicily (Milazzo, Priolo, and Gela).
In particular, in Gela, a refinery was built and activated in 1963 with the aim of exploiting the crude oil discovered in the South of Sicily and in other Mediterranean sites. The refinery was a huge complex in which different types of productive activities took place over the time: fertilizers, plastics, gasoline, gas oils, lubricating oils, coal, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and many other chemical products. The industrial pole has also included a bottling and distribution center, a thermoelectric plant and large facilities for desalinization and water purification.
Due to this industrial development, Gela lived a sudden economic boom and attracted many people from the surrounding countryside, from whole Sicily and even from Northern Italy. Within thirty years, the population doubled, from 43.678 people in 1951 to 74.806 in 1981. Likewise, the size of the city doubled due to the spread of savage and abusive construction, as it was also happening in several other rural areas of Sicily (Gravagno 2008). Because of the overpopulation and of the lack of public services, the quality of the urban life decreased, while almost all the inhabitants wished to become employees at the refinery. Therefore, they started to shelve their traditional jobs and abandon the agricultural fields.
As Andrea Turco (2018) has argued, the ENI corporation, the trade unions, local governments, and even the workers denied the truth about the contamination of human and non-human nature. In contrast with the mainstream narrative depicting the factory as a tool of progress, in reality the percentage of cancers, prenatal deaths, malformations, and other health problems were increasing in the town and in the surrounding areas (Vasta 1998). Other changes were also occurring, such as the loss of marine fauna and flora and the contamination of seawater due to the lack of any strict law about the treatment of the industrial waste. In addition to this, the fresh water coming from the rivers and streams that cross the plain around Gela was channeled in order to provide cleaning water for the machines of the refinery. As a consequence, most of the freshwater was not any more easily available, public fountains were cut out and running water turned to be intermittent.
From the mid-seventies, the oil sector suffered a serious global crisis that had consequences for Gela. The layoffs increased, whereas the hiring decreased and citizens started to be more aware of the outcomes of "industrialization without development", as was renamed by Eyvind Hytten e Marco Marchione (1970). As an effect of the crisis, in 1994 one of the most dangerous sections of the plant, "the chlorine-soda department", was closed. Within less than two decades from the closure of this laboratory- renamed by newspapers "killer division"- twenty of its skilled employees died, while the survivors had several health problems.
Finally, after many struggles, at the end of the '90s, Gela was recognized at the national level as dangerous and fragile territory. More specifically, in 1998, the Italian Ministry of the Environment has included Gela in the list of highly contaminated areas (Law of 9 December 1998, n. 426). After 10 years of decreasing activities of production, in 2014 the refinery officially closes on hold to open up again as "green-refinery". Many citizens and ex-workers have asked for new agreements and duties. Although ENI is the main responsible for the contamination, it is also in charge of the “remediation works” that, unfortunately, remain until now only a promise. Several epidemiological studies (called SEBIOMAG, Sentieri, SEpiAs) have confirmed that people from Gela and bordering areas have a higher percentage of noxious elements than the medium average in Italy (Bianchi et al. 2006).
The new awareness among citizens about contamination led to bottom-up movements, such as “the Coordination of Women for the Territory of Gela” and "Families of the victims of chlorine soda of Gela". Those organizations have been able to obtain some results, as for instance with a 2011 trial against ENI which
recognized the chlorine-soda dichloroethane of the petrochemical as a contributing cause for the death of a worker.
Gela population reached its peak of 81.000 inhabitants in 1988; due to the shut down of the chemical sector in the 1990s, the population significantly decreased: during the first decade of the XXI century the number of inhabitants remained stable and in 2011 its population started to decrease constantly. The population trend has followed the gradual and long-lasting closure of the plant.
ENI S.p.A. Italian multinational oil and gas company NO-ENI Activists Committee "families victims of chlorine soda" local, regional and national government citizens
Since Gela has turned into an industrial city, both the local administrations and the trade unions have had an almost reverential attitude towards ENI. ENI brought jobs and resources to the local community. In fact, ENI has paid royalties annually to the Municipality to repair the environmental damages caused. It is estimated that the Municipality has collected from ENI 67 million euro of royalties from 2005 until nowadays. Yet, a large part of these royalties does not appear in the final balance sheets. In 2014 the trade unions together with national, regional and local governments and ENI company have signed an agreement for the creation of bio-refinery. In July 2018 the municipality risked the default and in September 2018 the mayor resigned and was replaced by a temporary special commissioner.
The industrialization process of the Southern areas of Italy was a clear governmental strategy to stem the outflow of population from the South to the North of the country (phenomenon known as the Great Internal Migration) and to improve the socio-economic condition of regions deemed “backward areas”. Particularly, the state initiative aimed at creating so-called “development sites” in the Italian Mezzogiorno started in 1957 and the official name of this policy was “Cassa per il Mezzogiono” (in English: Development Funds For the South”).