Ships of Poison

As reported in the Calabria daily newspaper “Calabria Ora” by director Paolo Pollichieni, 55 are the number of ships confirmed by Italian navy admiral and chief of Italian intelligence organization AISE (formerly SISMI), Bruno Branicoforte; 55 Ships containing a toxic and dangerous mix of radioactive and other industrial contaminants that were traded in the international traffic of the world’s hazardous wastes on the high seas. Others unofficially talk of upwards to 140 ships. Only NATO knows for sure but has not yet revealed this information to the public, and who knows if they ever will? Now these 55 ships, cargos of waste aboard and possibly seeping into the waters of the Mediterranean, are said to be lying on the sea floor, intentionally sunk across international waters over the past twenty years. Branicoforte made his affirmation to the Italian parliamentary committee for the Security of the Republic, Copsair on the 25th of September.

The threat to public health is alarming to the coastal population of Italy as it should be to all of the 23 countries that border the Mediterranean Basin. Health reports from the Region of Calabria show elevated cases of cancerous tumors, especially among the younger population along the coasts. The culprits of this International tragedy: organized criminal elements, the corporate producers of this waste and the government’s that knowingly allowed this contamination of the sea to unfold; are now gathering forces and talking of confirmations of these ships and a clean-up of the Sea.

The assessor of the Environment in the Region of Calabria Doctor Silvio Greco, a marine biologist, reminds us that the majority of these wastes came from Industries outside of Italy. This makes it again clear that there must be an International effort monitored by citizen watchdog groups to contain the effects of this catastrophe. It is hard to trust those that made this mess in the first place to clean up this unthinkable man made disaster, but they may have the only means.

A ship from the Italian energy giant ENI is now in route from Cyprus to Calabria. As reported in the Calabrian daily il Quotidiano on the 8th of October, the vessel is specialized to verify the contents of the first ship to be photographed in the seas depths, 11 kilometers from Cetraro. ENI has offered the assistance of this vessel free of charge, recognizing the gravity of the situation. Another research vessel from the Italian environmental research institute called ISPRA is being retrofitted with special equipment to provide 3 dimensional images of the ship thought to be the Cunsky,

The regional fishing industry, especially around Cetraro, is being harshly affected and there is talk of public aid to families feeling the economic brunt from the crash in fish consumption. There is also concern about a blow to the tourism industry. This area is usually overrun with tourists during the month of August and many families here base their livelihoods around the tourist industry. Contaminated land from illegal dumping of hazardous wastes is also a large problem in this area and a threat to local agricultural practices, confounding an already ugly situation.

In Italy as a whole, Berlusconi and his harem of ministers continue to hold the public interest. Stefania Prestigiacomo, the young environmental minister from Sicily, said on the 7th of October that there will be every effort made on the part of the government to assess and clean up the situation in the Calabrian coastal waters near the towns of Cetraro, Fuscaldo, Guardia Piemontese, San Lucido and the cities of Paola, Diamante and Amantea on the Tyrennian Sea, where the first ship to be photographed lies off the coast. But nothing has yet been said by Prime Minister Berlusconi, President Napolitano or environmental minister Prestigiacomo about the other 54 ships confirmed by Admiral Branicoforte. Other regions beyond Calabria, including Tuscany, Basilicata and Campania, are asking for more action and communication from the Berlusconi government as Berlusconi himself has yet to address the issue publicly and Prestigiacomo has done so only sparingly. The opposition is accusing the government of negligent inaction, while Prestigiacomo says that she is doing all she can as she begins to break her silence on this global calamity.

The Berlusconi government is also under pressure to for it’s decision to bring back nuclear power to Italy. In 1987 Italians voted overwhelmingly against the use of nuclear power and existing plants were phased out by 1990. In 2008 the Berlusconi led government reversed this decision and announced a renewed investment in nuclear energy and a new generation of plants.

The recent landslides in the Sicilian province of Messina that caused the death of at least 21 people have combined with Berlusconi’s continuing legal saga and sex scandal to temporarily shift attention here from the Ships of Poison. The Landslides in Messina are seen as another result of the neglect of the South by the national government and abusive criminal practices in the Southern regions.

At the European level there is interest coming from the European Parliament to address the horrible reality coming to light here. The Calabrian Environmental Assessor Greco will lead an Italian delegation to Strausburg in order to further elaborate the gravity of this situation of the Ships of Poison to the European Community on the 20th of October.

Throughout the world there is growing attention and focus on this story while at the local level there is a mass mobilization underway. On the 24th of October organizers are planning an International day of action with a large demonstration in the small city of Amantea near the river Oliva. This area is largely seen here as ground zero for this horrid reality. Along the shores of Amantea in 1990, a ship called the Jolly Rosso, laiden with toxic and radioactive waste, beached ashore after a failed attempt to sink it off the coast. The contents of the Jolly Rosso were then dumped on land nearby. The area suffers from elevated deaths due to leucemia and cancerous tumors thought to be linked to findings of the highly toxic Cesium 137, Mercury and other poisonous substances contaminating the land, river and sea. On the 24th of October it is hoped that this situation will be given the attention it deserves and that a global cooperation may begin to heal the waters of our beautiful Mediterranean Sea. We hope this for our children and children’s children.

The Calabrian daily newspaper il Quoitidiano has created an on-line petition to call on the Italian government to move quickly to both assess and begin to address this International disaster. It calls on the Italian government to contain the damage from the radioactive waste at sea and on land. There have been an average of 2000 signatures a day from all over the world. The link is here and you can sign where it says firma la petizione. If you would like to take part in the International Day of Action on the 24th by organizing a local event in solidarity or attending the demonstration in Amantea you can send an email to me and I will forward it to the local organizers here.

MICHAEL LEONARDI currently lives in Calabria. He teaches English at the University of Calabria in Cosenza and at the Vocational Highschool in Maratea for training hotel and restaurant workers. He can be reached at

Michael Leonardi lives in Italy and can be reached at