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SPIAGGE BIANCHE AT ROSIGNANO SOLVAY. PHOTO: FABRIZIO VILLA/GETTY IMAGES

IT - This Italian Beach Looks Perfect. But Is There Something in the Water?

For over 100 years a massive chemical plant has pumped waste into the sea in Rosignano Solvay. But tourists still come here, as a study that could answer whether the beach is safe goes unfunded.

ROSIGNANO SOLVAY, Italy – A boy who can only be about four or five years old splashes in the turquoise shallows of le spiagge bianche, the famously white beaches off the coast of Tuscany that look more like the Maldives than they do the Mediterranean. From the shoreline, Maurizio Marchi watches, expressionless. The boy might be wearing inflatable armbands, but for Marchi, he is far from safe. Marchi works with a local cooperative that fights for health rights, Medicina Democratica, and has spent decades campaigning against a massive chemical plant that looms nearby.

The factory, run by the Belgian multinational Solvay, makes soda ash before discharging its waste directly into the sea – about 200m away from where the boy is swimming.

“Solvay has discharged [waste] into the sea since 1917. It’s estimated that there are about 500 tons of mercury in the seabed,” Marchi said, referring back to a widely-cited 2008 study from a local environment agency that said Solvay had discharged 400 tons of mercury over 65 years.

But there’s a flipside to this story. Over all these decades, the Belgian company has also brought jobs and investment into the town; not only is the local primary school named after its founder Ernest Solvay, the whole town has now taken on the name Rosignano Solvay.

So is the water safe; is the area as a whole safe? There has been a long back and forth between local environmental agenciessaying the effluent contains harmful metals like mercury, lead and arsenic, and Solvay insisting that they are inert, that it’s just limestone and that it actually helps prevent coastal erosion. In a document published earlier this year, Solvay said: “Solvay does not use or add heavy metals in its soda ash industrial process. Limestone, like many types of rock or stone, naturally contains traces of heavy metals, but those remain imprisoned in a solid state in the limestone and are not harmful for living organisms, including people and fish." Ultimately, no one knows definitively – because the study that would finally establish whether there was a relationship between pollutant exposure and chronic-degenerative diseases has never happened. It has been waiting for funding from the local government for four years.

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