In a story line that seems plucked from the pages of a hard-boiled detective novel, a massive oil spill is coursing through northern Italy.
Except, unlike a detective thriller, it’s real-life vegetation, water and bird species taking the hit.
Hundreds of birds have already died as a result of the spill, which started Tuesday, sending thousands and thousands of liters of primarily diesel fuel coursing down the Lambro River on their way towards the heart of Italy’s agricultural production.
And it seems to have been deliberate.
The Associate Press reports that government officials say the cisterns at the refinery turned depot northeast of Milan were opened deliberately, by someone who knew how to do it.
Although no one has been charged with what Italian officials are calling “a true act of environmental terrorism,” authorities have speculated that the individual responsible might have been a former employee angered by a recent round of lay-offs.
By Wednesday the spill had reached the Po River, Italy’s longest and most important river, and by Thursday, the spill had reached the province of Parma, renown for its prosciutto and parmesan cheese.
Fortunately, Italian farm groups say their nation’s breadbasket is safe for now — thanks to low level farming activity at this time of year and heavy rains earlier in the season, which means the currently contaminated Po won’t have heavy irrigation needs to to meet just yet.
However, although the estimated size of the spill varies widely — from 400,00 liters to 2.5 million liters to the equivalent of 125 tanker trucks full of oil– the impact of the spill is bound to be significant.
Rice farmers in Lombardy, which supply 42% of Italy’s rice output, are planning extraordinary maintenance to make sure area irrigation systems are thoroughly cleared of oil by the time rice production begins, in just under three weeks.
Cleanup crews are trying to slow the oil slick, but weather conditions have hampered their efforts. The spill was expected to pass through the delta near Venice and flow into the Adriatic by Sunday or Monday. Regional governments have requested declaration of a state of emergency, in order to obtain federal funds to cope with the spill.
Aside from trying to stop the progress of the spill, immediate emergency efforts may focus on the fish, wild ducks and herons the WWF said were just beginning to nest along the banks of the Po.
Ironically, the river where the spill began, the Lambro (which means “clear” in Latin) was just beginning to recover from years of industrial pollution.
Roberto Formigoni, the governor of Lombardy, has called for “the harshest penalties possibles” against those found to be responsible for the spill.