The poisoned legacy - Claire Bonello

The poisoned legacy - Claire Bonello

Last Sunday this newspaper carried an alarming report about the toxic fumes emitted by cruise liners in our ports.

Axel Friedrich – whistleblower in the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal and former head of the Federal Environment Agency in Germany – measured the microscopic particles blown out of cruise liner chimneys. He found that they stood at a shockingly high 110,000 particles per cubic metre.

These particles can penetrate deep into the lung, go into the lung wall and enter the bloodstream, causing heart attacks, diabetes and a host of other health concerns. Last year the World Health Organization placed diesel particles in the same category of carcinogens as smoking and asbestos.

To put this further in perspective, Dr Friedrich said pioneering research showed how every time the readings went up by 1,000 particles, the incidence of heart attacks increased by around seven per cent. 

“Think of it this way: if a ship were on land, like a factory or a power plant, the emissions would be completely illegal,” he said. This last sentence really struck me. We have recently – and rightfully – rejoiced that the polluting Marsa power plant is no more. And now we have cruise liners belching out toxic matter into our lungs.

Industry lobbies may be powerful, but they shouldn’t be prioritised over a nation’s health and safety.

Malta Developers Association president Sandro Chetcuti has declared that Malta has to be another Monaco, that if progress (on our Monaco mission) stops, people will get hurt.

I suppose if the president of the MDA has decreed it to be so, we will all have to follow the memo and try to be a Mini-Monaco. Even though famed travel writer A.A. Gill described the place as “a money puddle. A cash delta. It is as if all the wealth from the rich northern European pasture has run down the Continent and found its way here, to form a sort of mangrove swamp of avarice before running into the Mediterranean. Maybe swamp is the wrong term. Maybe some of you like swamps. Perhaps sewage outlet would be a better description.”

The polluting Marsa power plant is no more... now we have cruise liners belching out toxic matter

Be that as it may. If we’re going to emulate Monaco, maybe we should try and take a leaf out of their book and copy some of the positives. For example, in May this year Monaco acceded to air pollution and energy-efficiency rules and the IMO treaty covering emissions from ship exhausts and energy efficiency. This limits the main air pollutants contained in ships’ exhaust gas, including sulphur oxides and nitrous oxides, and prohibits deliberate emissions of ozone depleting substances. It also includes energy-efficiency measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ships.

Maybe that would be something to copy instead of the vulgar flaunting of excesses.

I’ve just read the biography of Gateano Vassallo – a one-time manager for the Camorra in the Campania region in Italy. His main line of business was waste – toxic waste, which arrived from all corners of Italy and which he buried in unlined, massive holes in what is now known as the “Terra Dei Fuochi” or “The Triangle of Death”.

Since hazardous and industrial waste is expensive to dispose of safely, many businesses in Italy adopted cost-cutting (and illegal) methods and started paying organised crime syndicates to dispose of their toxic waste.

For years the different branches of the clan were on a roll, as they dumped millions of tonnes of waste in the countryside. Poisoned slurry was poured over agricultural land – palmed off as fertilizer to farmers. Entire clan families were enlisted in the illegal waste disposal business – some of them rolling up to “work” in the municipal dumps in ostentatious red Mercedes.

When the waste emergency crisis cropped up, the clan simply kept on cashing in. As one boss said, “Garbage was gold”. It was the most lucrative industry ever, better than the drug trade, extortion or prostitution rackets.

All things – however – must come to an end as did the garbage goldmine. After turning State’s evidence and showing State agencies where some of the toxic tonnes had been buried, Vassallo was imprisoned for other criminal convictions.

The last pages of his story are a total contrast to the heady, go-go days when the money poured in. As he paces up and down his small cell, he is wracked by doubts. Was he really partly to blame for poisoning the land of his birth? Could the hard rock layer many miles down possibly have prevented the water table from being poisoned? Were the tumours that killed both his parents his doing? Would he eventually be killed by a similar tumour? The doubts are relentless.

His youngest son comes to visit and tells him how shocked he was to learn at school that the “Terra dei Fuochi” is partly his father’s doing. At that point, Vassallo realises that his only legacy to his children is that of shame.

This is not a morality tale. Nor is it a story of redemption. It is simply the chilling narration of the consequences of our actions and whether all the money in the world is sufficient compensation for that horrific conclusion.

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