“They are unconstitutional”: the magistrates of Syracuse against the government decrees on petrochemicals


“They are unconstitutional”: the magistrates of Syracuse against the government decrees on petrochemicals

A question of constitutional legitimacy arises from Sicily which concerns the decrees with which Giorgia Meloni's government attempted to intervene in the Syracuse petrochemical industry and “national energy independence”.

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Five articles of the Constitution violated with two decrees of the government presided over by Giorgia Meloni . This is the text of the prosecutor's office and the investigating judge of Syracuse following the case of the IAS purifier of Priolo Gargallo , the “poison purifier” of the petrochemical center of the Aretusea province.

With an order dated 12 December 2023, the judge for preliminary investigations Salvatore Palmeri promoted a “constitutionality incident”. It will therefore be up to the Constitutional Court to decide whether the initiatives implemented by the Melonian executive to keep the petrochemical industry alive can remain standing. Or if, instead, they were illegitimate .

The accusation of environmental disaster

The scenario is that of the intricate story of the IAS purifier of Priolo, in the Syracuse area. The wastewater from one of the most important petrochemical hubs in Europe flows into the plant, which is publicly-privately owned. Since the summer of 2022, the IAS purifier has been under seizure because the Syracuse prosecutor's office hypothesizes a very serious environmental disaster . According to the prosecution, the plant was not in a position to manage the toxic substances it received, moreover without authorisations. The magistrates' experts speak of tons of benzene released into the atmosphere and of the absolute inadequacy of a purifier that would have been suitable for urban wastewater, and not for that of the refineries which alone produce a quarter of the petroleum derivatives circulating in Italy.

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Accepting the prosecutor's request for seizure, the judge for preliminary investigations establishes that the large industrial users ( Isab ex Lukoil , Sasol , Sonatrach and Versalis ) must detach themselves from the IAS ( Industria Acqua Siracusana ) purifier to stop the ongoing pollution. The refineries, at that point, reply that it is a bit complicated: to safely stop the plants, they say, it can take up to eight years . If things are not done properly, they argue, the risk is of causing enormous damage.

The connection with the Russian oil embargo

In the midst of an already complex issue, the sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia for the war in Ukraine are inserted. Among these, the Moscow oil embargo. Around the end of 2022, the Isab plant in Priolo trembles: at that time it is still owned by the Russian Lukoil and, since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict , it has only been able to purchase crude oil from the motherland.

The end of Russian oil would represent the end of the plant. And, with it, yet another risk of closure for the entire Syracuse petrochemical industry, in which one company is connected to another as in a circuit of light bulbs. If the connection of one fails, the connection of all fails. The over ten thousand jobs on the line become a priority of the national government.

In Rome, however, it is clear that sanctions against Russia are not the only problem. Because, in fact, whether Isab is sold quickly as hoped (it will happen in May 2023 ) or not, there is always the seizure of the judiciary to make the Syracuse petrochemical plant a powder keg. All large users are connected to the purifier: if the purifier does not purify, they risk having to stop because their authorizations all need to be reviewed.

The Salva Ilva that saves Priolo


The government therefore lined up a series of measures to ensure the continuity of petrochemical production and jobs: in January 2023 the Save Ilva decree was published. Inside there are yet another measures for the Taranto steelworks, but there is also a passage that intervenes directly on the code of criminal procedure: “When the seizure concerns industrial plants or parts of them declared to be of national strategic interest – we read in the January decree – or systems or infrastructures necessary to ensure production continuity, the judge orders the continuation of the activity “. For IAS it is perfect.

A month later, in February 2023, Isab Lukoil was declared an ” establishment of national strategic interest ” and, consequently, subjected to the protections due to those who guarantee Italian “energy security”. Its main necessary infrastructure is considered in the same way as ISAB: the IAS purifier of Priolo. Yes, there is the problem of the judicial investigation and the alleged environmental disaster, but the measures to balance the “continuity of production activity and the protection of employment, health and the environment” are left to a subsequent decree.

Document which officially arrives in September 2023 and which contains Isab's “provisions for containing the risks of environmental damage”. Once again, it is the government that connects Ilva to IAS : the balance between the interests at stake (health, environment, free economic initiative) must “meet criteria of proportionality and reasonableness”, write the ministries of the Environment and Made in Italy . This was established, they recall, by the Constitutional Court, allowing the continuation of the activities of Ilva of Taranto. In the rest of the document, the ministries grant what the investigating judge of Syracuse defines as “significant exceptions ” to the provisions of the Consolidated Environmental Law.

The accusation of unconstitutionality

According to the Syracuse prosecutors and the investigating judge, it is this set of provisions that is – in various ways – unconstitutional. In fact, with the September decree, the measures to be adopted to achieve the now famous “balancing” of interests within an establishment of national strategic importance are decided. Under these conditions, based on the text of the Salva Ilva decree, the judge should authorize the continuation of the activities. For the Aretusei magistrates, the implications are clear: the judicial power (the judge) is asked to submit to the executive power (the government), without the legislative power (the parliament) having intervened.

Furthermore, we read again in the constitutionality incident, the exceptions established by the September inter-ministerial decree do not have an expiry date nor is there any reference “to any control by third parties nor to any possible sanctions”. Furthermore, the involvement of technical bodies or, for example, the municipalities in whose territories the petrochemical industry is located is not envisaged. The result, the magistrates write, is “unlimited discretion , which risks resulting in arbitrariness ” at the hands of the ministries.

Exposure limit values


And the ministries would have exercised it: in the September decree it is established that the “exposure limit value (ELV)”, which serves to avoid harmful effects on health, must be verified as a “monthly average”. “In this way the decree allows companies to carry out wastewater discharges characterized by potentially unlimited daily peaks of pollutants , given that compliance with the ELVs could be achieved through a banal compensation operation”, continue the Syracuse magistrates.

It is true, conceded by the court, that the “constant monitoring” of discharges into the IAS sewerage is entrusted to ISPRA (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) and ARPA (Regional Agency for the Protection of the Environment of Sicily). . It is equally true, however, that it is not said how this monitoring should take place. Even more so considering that Ispra, in August 2023, had highlighted the critical issues arising from making a monthly average of the “exposure limit values”: automatic samplers should be installed at the discharge points, to be controlled remotely.

Or it would be necessary for ISPRA or ARPA technicians to go in person to validate the withdrawals for three different moments of each day, each time for at least an hour. “It is believed that this last method is operationally inapplicable “, says Ispra, with an effort at calmness. Under these conditions, the magistrates ask, how can a balance which no one seems to have the power to supervise be truly considered “reasonable”? The answer will be up to the Consulta.


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