Update from Novara Asbestos Trial
On September 13, 2021 a seismic event in an Italian courthouse went largely unnoticed. Italy is the only country in the world which has persistently and conscientiously tried to hold to account individuals responsible for the national epidemic of asbestos-related diseases which has taken the lives of an untold number of its citizens.1 Owners of asbestos conglomerates, managers of individual factories and others who oversaw the production and marketing of carcinogenic material have been individually and jointly tried for their crimes. The accused faced a number of charges including wilful manslaughter, intentional homicide and environmental crimes.
At the Novara Court of Assizes this week, public prosecutors began to present the case known as Eternit bis against the Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny who has been charged, in this instance, with voluntary manslaughter over the deaths between 1992 and 2016 of 63 workers and 320 members of the public who breathed asbestos fibers liberated by the operations of the Eternit factory in Casale Monferrato. Over the last ten years Schmidheiny has been charged in various Italian jurisdictions with murder, manslaughter, aggravated culpable homicide, causing permanent environmental damage and failing to comply with safety rules.2 Schmidheiny has never appeared in person at any of the Italian trials and has said that the legal actions against him were tantamount to state torture by a failed state. Being the target of this sustained legal vendetta had, he said, injured his mental health and forced him to find solace in meditation to deal with his hatred of Italians.
Evidence by two witnesses for the prosecution were heard on September 13. The first person to testify was Nicola Pondrano, Eternit employee at the plant from 1974 to 1979,3 official for the CGIL Union of Casale Monferrato, coordinator of the CGIL of Alessandria and Italy, expert in asbestos-related labor disputes and founding member of an Italian asbestos victims association: Associazione famigliari e vittime amianto (Association of Asbestos Victims and Families [AFeVA]).4 Just reading a report of his gripping and detailed testimony, which lasted five hours, almost makes one breathless, not only because of the all-pervasive nature of the impenetrable dust surrounding Eternits workers but also because of the insouciance of the management which continually reassured them that exposure to asbestos posed zero risk to factory workers.
The conditions Pondrano described at the factory in the Ronzone district of Casale Monferrato sounded like a scene from Dantes inferno. In fact, like being in one of Dantes circles was how he described it to the court.
It was a factory that was 70 years old, where there was a lot of dust, humidity, heat... I remember that there was this custom of posting funeral posters of those who died on the two large columns at the entrance to the establishment, as a sign of sharing. I immediately noticed the excessive mortality of these workers, many around the age of 50, dead before retirement age. It was natural to ask ourselves what was happening here.
The dust from processing the asbestos-cement pipes was, said Pondrano: unmanageable. We used to pick it up with a shovel and throw it in sacks, and I don't know what happened to those sacks full of dust. Much of the waste was, we now know, given away for free or at low cost for use in building football pitches, courtyards and farmyards and even as domestic insulating material.
During his testimony, the witness explained the wider hazard posed by the toxic exposures at the factory:
"When I think about that time, I feel bad, because I know that I didn't protect myself enough. I know what could happen to me, but I would never forgive myself if something were to happen to my daughter [who was exposed to the asbestos he brought home on his clothes and in his hair].
The second and final witness of the day was Albino Defilipp, from the Regional Agency for Environmental Protection Piedmont (L'Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione Ambientale del Piemonte [ARPAP]). Defilipp informed the court about the remit of ARPAP, its assessment techniques and the 195 sites throughout the region where asbestos contamination had been found.
The next hearing will be on Friday, September 17, 2021 and will feature presentations by prosecution witnesses Alberto Cirio, President of the Piedmont Region, Giuliana Busto, the President of AFeVA and long-time campaigner for asbestos victims AFeVAs Bruno Pesce. There will be additional hearings on October 4, 8 and 27 and then every Monday. The proceedings are being held behind closed doors because of Covid-19 restrictions.
September 16, 2021
1 Imarisio, M. Amianto, la strage e il processo dimenticati [Asbestos, the forgotten massacre and trial]. September 14, 2021.
2 Kazan-Allen, L. Déjà Vu: Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock. June 15, 2021.
3 All'Eternit Bis inizia il dibattimento. Pondrano è il primo teste [The debate begins at the Eternit Bis. Pondrano is the first witness]. September 13, 2021.
4 Mossano, S. «Cera tanta di quella polvere allEternit, ma la dirigenza assicurò che lamianto non è pericoloso» [There was a lot of that dust in Eternit, but the management assured us that asbestos is not dangerous]. September 14, 2021.