Brussels to verify high radioactivity levels in Malta-Sicily pipeline route

Sicilian regional authorities call for re-routing of Malta-Sicily gas pipeline fearing environmental degradation of past industrial activity and concentrations of radioactive elements

The European Commission will be contacting the Italian authorities to see whether a ‘verification’ is required with regards to the high levels of radioactivity in the seabed around Gela, where the EU-funded gas pipeline linking Italy to Malta is planned.

In March 2022, the managing authority of the Biviere Nature Reserve in Gela alerted the Italian Ministry for Ecological Transition, on behalf of the Sicily Region administration, about the environmental threat posed by the pipeline.

The document recommended alternative routes, in view of the large number of impacts and high environmental costs, claiming that the route of the EU-funded gas pipeline was determined on the basis of solely economic criteria. Indeed, the proposed pipeline will not only pass through Natura 2000 sites and a bird and biodiversity area but will pass from the gulf of Gela, an area which already registers worrying levels of pollution, owing to concentrations of radioactive uranium 238 and thorium 234.

The 63-page report, endorsed by the Sicilian regional government and sent to the Italian government, refers to data from sampling stations near Gela showing concentrations of depleted radioactive compounds in the sea around Gela.

The gas pipeline route from Malta to Gela, Sicily
The gas pipeline route from Malta to Gela, Sicily

The concentration of the two radioactive elements which naturally occur on land, in the waters opposite the coast, suggests it was dispersed in the sea from landfills, making the site one of the “most problematic” in Italy. The report calls for the re-routing of the Malta-Sicily gas pipeline as this would add up to the environmental degradation of past industrial activity.

The issue was raised in a question to the Commission by Green MEP Ignazio Corrao, who asked whether the Commission will verify the presence and determine the origin of uranium and thorium in the waters around Gela. The Green MEP also asked the Commission, which is the custodian of treaties – including those protecting biodiversity – for its assessment of the pipeline project in terms of EU law.

According to the EU’s Habitats Directive, any plan or project that is likely to have a significant impact on a Natura 2000 site must be subject to an assessment of its impacts in view of the site's conservation objectives.

But projects can still be approved because of imperative reasons of overriding public interests but member states have to provide a justification.

In its written reply, the Commission is still not in possession of all the information about the project and cannot assess its compliance with EC law and its possible environmental impacts. It also claimed that it has no previous information about “the alleged radiological contamination of the seabed on this area”.

The Commission hinted that it falls upon the member states to ensure compliance with the directives.

“Without prejudice to the Commission’s powers as guardian of the Treaties, the primary responsibility for implementing EC law lies with the Member States’ authorities, including in relation to correctly assessing projects’ possible impacts on Natura 2000 sites.”

Noting that Italy has transposed the EU directives protecting Natura 2000 sites in its national legislation “it is also responsible for monitoring radioactivity in the marine environment of its territorial waters”.

Nonetheless the Commission “will be contacting the Italian competent authority in order to assess the need for a Commission verification.”

The verification can be requested in terms of article 35 of the Euratom Treaty.

Article 35 of the Euratom Treaty requires that each Member State shall establish facilities necessary to carry out continuous monitoring of the levels of radioactivity in air, water and soil and to ensure compliance with the basic safety standards.

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