By Joop Hazenberg On

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A local community in Italy managed to shut down a coal power plant, after years of legal battles and doctors delivering data on the health impact of burning coal. Will Savona’s plant ever go into operation again? ‘The eyes of the people have been opened.’

Campaigning against coal power plants is difficult in Europe. While in the United States NGOs have managed to have over two hundred plants shut down in just a few years, the battle in Europe is more strenuous.

Port of Savona
Port of Savona

A remarkable success has been booked nonetheless, in Italy. In the north-west of the country, right next to the city of Savona, the coal plant of Vado Ligure has been closed on court orders in March 2014. Reason: violation of the limits set by the environmental permit, leading to additional pollution caused by the burning of coal, which is putting too much of a health risk on the citizens of Savona.

Though the closure is temporary, this is the first time in Europe that through the joint work of a local citizen’s committee, environmental groups and an association of doctors, a coal power plant had to stop operating. ‘Vado Ligure’ therefore could well be a (legal) precedent for other coal campaigners across Europe, who are still faced with a coal fleet of nearly three hundred plants. Many of these plants are old and emit far too many deadly pollutants like sulphuroxides, nitrogenoxides, dust and mercury. Research of HEAL has shown that nearly 23,000 people in Europe and Turkey die prematurely as a direct result of the burning of coal. Annually.

United for health

The closure of Vado Ligure wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The campaign against the plant has been running for years, with countless meetings, actions and reports before the local prosecutor went into action. ‘The fight started in the 1980s, initiated by a couple of doctors,’ says Maurizio Loschi who is the provincial representative of Medicina Democratica (an association on health issues). ‘These doctors started publishing reports on how coal burning affects the health of people. Later they were joined by environmentalists, law organisations and other societal groups.’

According to Loschi, a key element of the campaign was to separate the pollution coming from the plant and other pollutants from nearby heavy industry. The next step was to prove a clear relation between burning coal and people dying as a result of it. In the court case, the argument of manslaughter of hundreds of citizens was brought up, but Loschi doesn’t like ‘cold’ numbers. ‘I prefer to talk about real people, parents and children that would not get sick or even die if we did not have this kind of pollution.’

Maurizio Loschi

Ethical code

A closure of Savona’s power plant (which is fired by both coal and gas) seemed far from obvious in 2006. Until then the campaigners didn’t manage to raise the issue sufficiently. But that year, the ethical code of Savona’s medical community was published, that obligated doctors to ‘consider the environment in which people live and work, as a fundamental determinant of health of citizens.’ The medics should ‘encourage and participate in’ the protection of health,

Dr. Ugo Trucco, the President of the Order of Doctors in Savona, explains why this code was a game-changer in the struggle around the power plant. ‘Doctors must be on the frontline to safeguard the environment. And as there are more than expected cases of mortality through the impact of Vado Ligure, we needed to speak out.’ And that is what they did: in several reports, conferences and presentations to local and national policy makers, they made the case of many hundreds of people dying prematurely because of coal burning.

Dr. Ugo Trucco
Dr. Ugo Trucco

To Dr. Trucco’s dismay, their science-based plea was met with ‘great skepticism’. ‘At hearings, people would typically respond by saying: are you really sure coal is bad for the health? We were really shocked. Policy makers seem to have completely forgotten the principle of taking precautionary measures.’

Not only was the Order of Medics telling the government and the prosecutor for years to stop the operation of Vado Ligure because it wasn’t complying with the emission rules. Also other environmental groups as WWF Italy, Greenpeace, Legambiente and Loschi’s group were heavily campaigning for this goal. WWF made this video:

Maurizio Loschi, who is running the Stop the Coal campaign from Savona, states that a lot of efforts went into getting the right data to the prosecutor’s office, even involving studies of epidemiologists. ‘You have to study effects on water, air and the soil to show the impact of the plant,’ he says. But the owner of Vado Ligure, Tirreno Power, ‘still maintains that it is not exceeding the imposed limits and that it has the right permit to continue polluting.’

As the court did come into action in March 2014, the future of the plant is unsure. Tirreno Power has submitted plans to adapting the old coal units, but campaigners say these plans are full of faults. Loschi: ‘The plant could be dismantled stone by stone, but that is not absolutely certain.’

Protecting Tirreno

Labour unions are less than happy about the (temporary) closure of the plant. Loschi: ‘They have played a questionable role by embracing the position of Tirreno, that there is no pollution problem. And when the judiciary ordered the seizure of the plant, the labour unions asked the government to intervene.’

Dr Trucco: ‘Labour unions maintain the position that work is the most important thing before anything else. That worries me.’ He sees a necessity for a real cooperation between groups in society towards a green economy, rather than trench war fighting. ‘We need a collaboration between politicians, industrial actors and citizens to better understand the choices that are ahead of us. But Italy is not ready for such a process.’

Still, the intervention of the court has ‘opened the eyes’ of the people in Savona, according to Loschi. ‘Now the word is really out. People realize there is a correlation between having a coal power plant nearby and getting ill. Pharmacists, family doctors and pediatricians are now alert on symptoms as a result from burning coal.’ Recent data shows that air quality has improved considerably in Savona. If the government were to call for a referendum on the future of the Vado Ligure plant, Loschi predicts a ‘landslide victory’ for shutting it down permanently.

Thanks to WWF Italy for arranging the interviews in Savona