At Gran Sasso, a discovery of environmental crimes

From ToxicLeaks

Gran Sasso and the INFN[edit | edit source]

When people write about Italy’s Gran Sasso National Laboratory, they invariably invoke the name of James Bond. The underground laboratory devoted to “dark matter” physics, the largest of its kind in the world, lies beneath the mountain and is accessed by a single lane that veers from the national A24 route and leads to a secure gate deep beneath the Appenine rock. It is there, built along what was once an unfinished tunnel between Rome and the Adriatic coast, that the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) first launched its world-renowned facilities in the early 1980s. It’s there that the experiments continue, but what’s really secretive and sinister isn’t the espionage. Instead, it’s environmental crisis.


Gran Sasso boasts of 1,100 scientists from 29 countries who participate in experiments conducted there, most of which focus on neutrinos, and astroparticle and nuclear physics. For decades, the site has been ideal because 1,400 meters of rock above its three main experimental halls – they total 180,000 cubic meters of space – blocks out cosmic-ray noise. The sophisticated experiments stay uncontaminated.


Unfortunately, the national parks and villages surrounding Gran Sasso weren’t nearly as well protected. For at least two decades, Gran Sasso has been known as a source of toxic exposure, compromising a massive aquifer and local water resources. Now, three of its scientists are being prosecuted by Italian authorities for environmental violations and their failure to ensure compliance with legal protections.

History of environmental violations[edit | edit source]

Teramo, on the Adriatic side of the mountains, is the nearest city to Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Its roughly 50,000 people view the peaks of Gran Sasso, and the Monti della Laga range within a national park, from just a few kilometers away. At 150,000 hectares, the park is Italy’s largest and among the biggest protected areas in Europe. It is home to the climate-threatened Calderone glacier, and the Italian parks authorities refer to it as “a European monument to biodiversity.” Conservation efforts have brought back the Appenine wolf and Marsican brown bear, which share a home with a range of species.


Among them are the humans living in regional villages and Teramo, and they rely on an aquifer that supplies drinking water to hundreds of thousands of people. Beginning in 2002, chemical leaks from the Gran Sasso National Laboratory were discovered. The first case involved a spill of about 50 liters of the neurotoxin 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, also known as pseudocumene, from researchers working on the Borexino project – one that has measured solar neutrino activity for years.

Though small, the chemical spill reached the local river. In 2016, another accident involving a methylene chloride solvent spill led to contamination of Teramo’s drinking water, went unreported for several months, and ended in an investigation and a damning 1000-page report. The two incidents led to project shutdowns, but they also led to increased activism from neighboring communities concerned about the long-term impacts.

Gran Sasso activists[edit | edit source]

Some Italian water protectors and activists, including Augusto De Sanctis, have been battling Italian authorities to protect the aquifer since 2005. That’s when De Sanctis and Antonio Senta wrote an appeal to end projects and practices that compromised regional water sources and demanded more power for citizens. The damage, they said, began with the 1968 construction of the temporarily abandoned tunnels that began adjacent to, and part of, the Gran Sasso laboratory complex. The aquifer levels dropped from 1,600 meters above sea level to what was then 1,060 meters because of the construction, and the Gran Sasso facility continues to use enormous amounts of water to conduct experiments at the research site.


At one point, some 20,000 people successfully protested against expansion of the project. Yet that didn’t end the impacts of the existing facilities and the chemical exposures. In May 2017, drinking water safety was compromised temporarily for some 32 communities in the region; about 100 liters per second are taken from the lab area and about 700 liters from the tunnel area. World Wildlife Fund Italy, Abruzzo Social Forum and some two dozen other groups – including De Sanctis’ current Forum H2O – have placed pressure on the Italian government to enforce existing laws and expand protections to ensure a sustainable future in the face of climate change.  There are 2,300 tons of dangerous chemicals at the Gran Sasso facility, and the activist organizations successfully made their case with the courts.

Italian physicists charged with violations[edit | edit source]

In May 2019, prosecutors in Teramo announced criminal charges filed against INFN president Fernando Ferroni, the Gran Sasso laboratories director Stefano Ragazzi, and the environmental services chief, Raffaele Adinolfi Falcone. They are accused of failing to verify that environmental systems would protect local communities in the event of a chemical spill or failure, and face fines and up to four years in prison if they are convicted. Also charged are three executives of Strada dei Parchi, which operates the highway tunnel, and four from Ruzzo Reti, operator of an aqueduct that supplies drinking water from the aquifer.


The facility is in violation of a 2006 law that requires a 200-meter buffer between dangerous chemicals and drinking water sources, and prosecutors say that nearly USD$100 million in upgrades required after the 2002 chemical spill were never completed. Ultimately, even Gran Sasso scientists and laboratory executives – including Ferroni – concede that business as usual, and some research, cannot continue.


Adding to the risk is the region’s seismicity, which could spell chemical disaster in the event of an earthquake, and the need to protect the natural environment as well as local communities. The trial of the Gran Sasso scientists begins in September 2019. In the meantime, some 700,000 people who rely on the Gran Sasso aquifer for their lives and livelihoods remain at risk. They’re waiting, at last, for action.