Thursday, 3 December 2009

Radioactive Shipwrecks

Radioactive Shipwrecks in Italian Waters

By Angela Paine

Nov 14 2009

On 25th October 2009, twenty thousand people marched in Amantea, in the province of Cosenza, Calabria, southern Italy, in protest against the Calabrian Mafia (’ndragheta), who they say have been deliberately sinking ships carrying toxic and radioactive wastes along their coastline.

During the preceding week, trade union representatives from Alto Tirreno, a Region in north Calabria, petitioned the Rome government to deal with these toxic and radioactive shipwrecks. They met with little success.

The Quotidiano della Calabria newspaper collected more than thirty thousand signatures protesting the government’s inertia. The protestors demanded the government to clean up the seabed around Cetraro, Vibo and Capo Bruzzano, (near Brancaleone) the sites of known shipwrecks with radioactive and toxic cargoes. They also demanded the government search for other shipwrecks with radioactive and toxic cargoes, but the ’ndragheta are understood to be blocking investigations in order to prevent more shipwrecks being found.

The radioactive shipwrecks have unleashed a political storm in Calabria. Fisheries and tourism are the two major industries of Calabria, so the contamination of fish and the reduction of tourism threaten the livelihoods of many in this poor Italian region. Interestingly, the seven hundred people killed by the ’ndragheta between 1985 and 1992, the hundreds of ’ndragheta kidnappings, and the scores of ’ndragheta scandals involving most Calabrian politicians, appear to have caused less anger than the alleged radioactive shipwrecks, as this is the first time Calabrians have raised their voices en masse against ’ndragheta.

It is feared that the sinking of ships has gone on for many years, but the issue came to a head on the 12th October, when a wreck was discovered 14 miles off the coast of Cetraro, near Amantea, Calabria. On October 20, an ’ndragheta boss, Francesco Fonti, confessed in an interview published by L’Espresso magazine that he had sunk the Cunski exactly where the wreck was found and that its cargo was radioactive waste. He told L’Espresso that he took orders from multinational corporations to dispose of radioactive waste sent to him in ships.

The Italian government has been aware of shipwrecks containing deadly cargos around its southern coasts since 1994, when Legambiente, an Italian environmental organisation, started an inquest in Reggio Calabria. According to Lloyd’s Shipping Register, 39 ships were sunk in the Ionian sea between 1979 and 1995. Fonti has stated 30 were sunk by the local ’ndragheta.

The inquest first focussed on the ship, Rigel, which sank on 21 September 1987, 20 miles from Capo Spartivento, in the municipality of Brancaleone, near Reggio Calabria. It was believed that the captain, Giorgio Comerio, a go-between for arms dealers, mine manufacturers, and various ‘ndragheta clans, played a pivotal role in the nuclear waste dumping business. This ship was probably carrying radioactive waste, as raised radioactivity levels were found in the sea near the wreck.

The Marco Polo, which sank in the Straits of Sicily between Calabria and Sicily, was carrying a cargo of containers, some of which were found in 1994 along the coast of Campania, the region to the north of Calabria. Scientists found increased levels of radioactive thorium 234 in environmental samples. Presumably the ship was carrying radioactive waste when it sank. The Koraline sank near Ustica, a small island, 53 kilometres north of Capo Gallo, Sicily. Its containers were highly contaminated with thorium.

After months of investigation, the Legambiente inquest began to realise the extent of the contamination of the south Italian coast. However as the evidence of radioactive waste dumping mounted, the Environment Ministry brought the inquest to an abrupt halt and refused to allow the authorities in Reggio Calabria to investigate the ships sunk near Capo Spartivento.

The inquest at Reggio Calabria found contracts in connection with some of the sunken ships. It appears that some European governments may have sent radioactive waste to ’ndragheta clans through intermediaries. The contracts stated that waste should be inserted into steel tubes, inside steel containers with sonar systems, so that they could be found if necessary in the future. The containers were to be deposited 50-80 metres deep in the sea or buried deep on land. The ’ndragheta clans appeared to have decided to avoid all this work and simply sink the ships in the Mediterranean, with the ship-owners subsequently claiming the insurance.

Fonti told L’Espresso “For years, no-one wanted to listen to what I had to say in court. I always admitted that I was involved in dumping this waste in shipwrecks, both toxic and radioactive. I told them where to find the shipwrecks along the coast of Cetraro, and indeed on 12th September, the Calabria Region government ... found one of the ships, the Cunski, exactly where I told them to look.”

A robot operated mini submarine was sent down to photograph the wreck and its cargo. The video showed the old ship with a hole in its hull, through which several barrels could be seen, one of which was empty.

Francesco Fonti explained to L’Espresso how he sank three ships, including the Cunski in 1992. “I put dynamite inside a big lump of concrete on board the ships with a long fuse, then I blew them up. It was easy." He and members of his ’ndragheta clan also sank the Yvonne A at Maratea in the Gulf of Policastro, and the Voriais Sporadais at Melito Porto Salvo near Reggio di Calabria. All three ships were carrying toxic and radioactive cargoes. Fonti said that ’ndragheta had carried out these sinkings for the arms dealer, Ignazio Messina. He added “I sank 3 ships but I know from ’ndragheta bosses that at least 3 other ships were sunk between Scilla and Caribdes, another one near Tropea and others near Crotone. I can’t remember exactly where they sunk the others.”

Fonti said that he worked for various Italian politicians, including De Stefano, Dc Ciriaco de Mita and Riccardo Misasi. Misasi would tell him whether to dump the waste on land or at sea, and Dc Ciriaco de Mita asked him to dispose of waste for the state. “We could get between 4 and 20 billion lire for dumping a load. The money was deposited in a Swiss Bank in Lugano, or in a bank in Cyprus, Malta, Vaduz or Singapore. We did it all through the banker Valentino Foti.” These politicians deny involvement, but the absences of investigation and media coverage are notable.

Although it is tempting to point a finger at the Mafia, Camorra and ’ndrageta in Italy, these perform just the dirty end of a business that originates in other parts of Italy, Northern Europe and other parts of the world. For example, some of these ships were carrying waste for international arms dealers who were paid for the disposal of radioactive waste and who collected money fraudulently from insurance companies when the ships sank. Fonti named some of the arms dealers, including Saud Omar Mugne from Somalia, but Fonti has not yet revealed the origin of all the waste, perhaps because he does not know. He added that ’ndragheta stopped dumping toxic and radioactive waste off the coast of Italy several years ago and started sending ships to Africa, mainly to the coast of Somalia.

Of course, Fonti may not be a credible witness since he is a member of ’ndragheta, under house arrest for drug trafficking offences. But he is not the only person to indicate a link between the radioactive waste business and illegal arms dealing. The Italian journalist, Ilaria Alpi, discovered a link between toxic waste dumping by the Mafia and arms traffic in Somalia. She was killed in March 1994 in Somalia. Her death certificate has disappeared, but a photocopy was found on the property of the arms dealer Saud Omar Mugne. He is suspected of buying and selling arms between East Europe, Italy and Africa. According to Fonti and Ilaria Alpi, he was also involved in the toxic and radioactive waste disposal business. Several secret service operatives from various countries, who were trying to get to the bottom of this affair, were also killed in mysterious circumstances.

The inquest started by Legambiente in 1994 discovered a web of international financiers from big banks involved in a money-laundering programme called the “Roll Programme.” Fonti also points to the involvement of international financiers in the toxic and radioactive waste disposal business, with its links to the arms trade.

Silvestro Greco, a Calabrian Environment Councillor, who attended an emergency meeting at the Environment Ministry in Rome on 22nd October, said the shipwreck discovery should not just be considered a problem for Calabria. ‘‘There are perhaps another 30 ships still missing that were used to hide toxic, harmful and radioactive waste,’’ he said. ‘‘This pollution is a problem for all areas, not just those along the coast, because illegal trafficking in waste knows no international boundaries’’. He pointed out that ‘‘the entire Mediterranean, from the Adriatic Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea, and from the Straits of Sicily to the Aegean Sea’’ was damaged by the sinking of toxic waste ships. ‘‘Cleaning and removing the load will be particularly complex in terms of financing, given that a vast area is involved,’’ Greco added. ‘‘In our opinion, the European Union should get involved, as well as the Italian government”.

Mario Pirillo, a Calabrian Member of the European Parliament, together with seven other MEPs, filed an official request with the European Commission on Tuesday asking for its assistance. The request pointed out that Italian investigators believed the Cunski was sunk by an international criminal network involved in Europe-wide illegal waste disposal. It is important to recall that Italy only ever had one small nuclear power station. So though some of the radioactive waste in these shipwrecks may have originated in Italy, most almost certainly did not.

Then suddenly, on the 29th Oct, the environment minister, Stefania Prestagiacomo, held a press conference in Rome to announce that the shipwreck found at Cetraro was not a ship carrying a cargo of radioactive waste. It was the Catania, a passenger ship, which sank in 1917. The attorney Grasso then announced that the inquest into the Cetraro shipwreck was closed.

This, however, was not the end of the story. L’Espresso, once again, delving into the matter, interviewed Pippo Arena, the pilot of the remotely operated vehicle. He said that when he inspected the shipwreck near Cetraro in September, he saw two hulls and they were full of barrels. “Full of what I don’t know, but full” he said. This is in sharp contrast with the results of the other inspection, carried out from the ship, Mare Oceano, also off the coast of Cetraro. The shipwreck Catania that they found here had empty hulls. The two videos showed shipwrecks of different sizes, and the coordinates of the first shipwreck and those of the Catania demonstrated that they were about three and a half miles from each other. It was beginning to look as if there were more than one wreck off the coast of Cetraro.

This was born out by evidence recently leaked from the unpublished minutes of a meeting in the Italian parliament on 24th January 2006, to discuss the iniquitous waste recycling business. It emerged from this document that there were three shipwrecks off the coast of Cetraro, not one. None of the measurements of the three ships corresponds to the measurements of the Catania, the wreck found by the Mare Oceano. At the time, the MP Franco Greco told the commission that the fishermen of the area had found some barrels in the sea. So many questions have been raised that the WWF has entered the fray:

“There are inconsistencies between the declarations of the Environment Minister and the Region of Calabria and the report of the pilot of the ROV, who said that the two hulls of the boat during the first inspection were full whereas the Dda of Catanzaro talked about one ship with one empty hull,” a WWF spokesperson said.

So the WWF, which on the 2nd of November already officially requested a public comparison of the two inspections, repeated their request to Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo and the head of the national antimafia organisation Piero Grasso. They asked to be allowed to choose experts to compare the two videos made by the ROV. They also want the coordinates to be taken into consideration, and the technical details of the ships that were found. The Environment Minister responded by putting the two videos on the website “for complete information, transparency and so that the public can make comparisons.”

Clearly the mystery surrounding the toxic and radioactive shipwrecks off the coast of Calabria remains. The Italian Government, despite continued calls from the Green Party and many other MPs to get to the bottom of it, appear to be dragging their feet. But since there are clear indications that the waste business is international, Italy should not be left to deal with this problem on her own. The European Union should be involved, both to provide funding and expertise.

(URLs as of 11 Nov 2009)

This blog talks about the book The Lost Ships. Police detective Commander Natale de Grazia died suddenly while investigating shipwrecks carrying nuclear and toxic waste. There is a picture of the red ship, Jolly Rosso, that landed on the beach. It had a cargo of nuclear waste, which was spirited away. The ship was broken up and taken away in lorries. No one knows where the nuclear waste went, but a quarry near the beach is now radioactive.

This discusses 30 ships that disappeared. Some were found and observed to have increased levels radioactivity near them, but there is no political will to remove their cargoes.


A spokesperson for the Italian environmental organisation, Legambiente, talks about the international traffic in nuclear and toxic waste. Many countries pay to get rid of their waste, which ends up being dumped by ’ndrangheta (the southern Italian equivalent of the Mafia)


This shows an interview with the former ’ndrangheta boss, Francesco Fonti, who confessed that he blew up three old ships carrying toxic and radioactive wastes, off the coast of Italy. He told the authorities exactly where to find them, and they found one, where he said. It had a cargo of radioactive waste. The Government sent down a mini submarine to take photos of it but don’t want to do anything about it.

This shows local fishermen protesting about the damage to their livelihoods. They ask how can we live when the fish are radioactive and tourists will not want to come to our beaches again.

This shows the people in charge of the inquest, and the two journalists who were beginning to uncover the link beween the illegal sale of arms and radioactive and toxic waste dumping in Somalia before they were murdered.

These show the shipwreck found fourteen miles off the coast of Calabria, five hundred metres deep. There are holes in the side of the ship and you can see some of the barrels of radioactive cargo, one of which is empty. Calabria Region hasn’t got the money or the expertise to do anything about it.

video-footage of a shipwreck 12 miles from Molfetta with a highly toxic cargo. The main Italian press agency

Public enquiry on waste recycling for the Basilicata Region

Parliamentary Request by the foreign minister, the environment minister and the justice minister for an enquiry into the international network of toxic and radioactive waste traffic

Public enquiry into the illegal disposal of toxic and radioactive waste.

Riccardo Bocca; "Naufragio radioattivo" (Radioactive Shipwreck); L’Espresso, 9 September 2004, page.34 onwards

Riccardo Bocca; Indagini Radioattive - colloquio con Paolo Russo (Radioactive Enquiry – interview with Paolo Russo); L’Espresso, 16 September 2004, page.76 onwards

Riccardo Bocca; Nella memoria si รจ aperta una falla - colloquio con Gianfranco Messina (There seems to be a crevasse opening up in the collective memory – interview with Gianfranco Messina.) L’Espresso, 23 September 2004, pag.76 onwards,21515162.html

Toxic ships. The pilot of the robot operated submarine raises doubts about the second film. So the environment minister puts both films on the website.

Navi al veleno, buone nuove a Cetraro (Poison Ships, good news at Cetraro) by Paolo Poggio ROMA 29/10/09 - 20:13

WWF asks for a new enquiry

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