Armand van Wijck, TunnelTalk Europe Correspondent
Italy has a long tradition of violent protest, but few civil engineering mega-projects have attracted such long-term, and violent, opposition at all stages of their development - from concept and planning, right through to preparatory construction - as that faced by authorities attempting to build the twin tube Mont d'Ambin baseline tunnel. Even today, two decades on, contractors working on the Italian side of the Lyon-Turin link need police protection at the various construction sites on the Italian side. With full-scale construction of the main 57km-long baseline tunnel expected to start in 2015, Armand van Wijck of TunnelTalk discusses the explosive history of the project with Project Leader Maurizio Bufalini.
- It is like a civil war that has been raging for some 20 years, according to some commentators. The Susa Valley brings Italy to its knees, claimed one memorable newspaper headline.
Protesters gather against the project in Italy
- When the initial draft proposal for the Lyon-Turin high-speed railway project was released in 1991, communities and cities affected by the rail line and tunnel construction in Italy responded immediately by forming a group called the No TAV movement (TAV being the Italian acronym for Treno Alta Velocita, or high-speed train). Protestors have not been shy about questioning the benefits of the new rail link and about its overall environmental impact upon the Susa Valley, the location of the Italian tunnel portal and its surface route towards Turin.
- "It is one of the most challenging aspects of the project," explained Project Leader Maurizio Bufalini of Turin Ferroviaire (LTF), the owner of the project. "Italy has long had a tradition of strong opposition to the State and against the system, and this project has proved no exception." When LTF started working on the Italian side, in October 2005, protesters blocked several road and rail links between France and Italy and tried to occupy the construction sites. More extreme measures followed, and a bomb was found and defused on a main road in the area. Although the incident was condemned by civil protest leaders, the Italian Government responded by turning the valley into a military zone, sending troops in to guard the area.
- On 5 December 2005 Italian security forces violently evicted one of the permanent No TAV lookout posts in the valley, injuring about 20 protesters in the process. A few days later No TAV protestors responded by defiantly conducting a mass march through the valley and establishing a new lookout post.
Italian Police clash with protesters
- The clashes forced a rethink by the Italian Government; the project was put on hold while the environmental impact was reassessed. An observation and oversight committee, featuring representatives of affected valley communities, was created.
- "This seemed to work out at first but anarchists and political opposition groups soon found the project and the valley a good starting point to riot against the State," said Bufalini. According to Mario Virano, Special Commissioner of the Government for high-speed rail projects in Italy, a huge group of violent infiltrators from extreme left and extreme right political groups managed to mingle with the No TAV committees, aiming to engage in fights with the police and to generally aggravate the situation. "This violent faction is not looking for a solution to the objections to the project, and still grows strongly," said Bufalini. "It has no real motivation for opposing the tunnel."
Armed groups regularly attempt to besiege the area, setting up camps in locations where work is due to be carried out, not allowing workers to move forward with tunnel and railway construction. Protests sometimes degenerate into violence, with armed clashes occurring between protesters and the national army. Construction workers are often targeted. "Crews have been attacked with Molotov cocktails and other projectiles," recalls Bufalini, "and it could get worse with time."
Violence erupts between police and protestors
- In May 2011 the Italian Government announced it would open the construction site of the new line in Chiomonte, but No TAV protesters prevented the first attempt to get work under way by blockading the site. On 27 June police forces were sent in to disperse the protesters with tear gas, and within a few days the eviction was complete.
- But the mood and the strength of feeling against the project were not so simple to remove. On 3 July 2011, 40,000 protesters met in the Susa Valley to reiterate their claims that the rail link would have a detrimental impact upon the environment and that, in any case, the project was a waste of public money. Once again the protests turned violent; this time culminating in a two-hour confrontation with the police during which a reported 15 protesters and 188 police officers were injured.
- 150 reasons against
Although the European Union and the Commissioners have promised that Susa Valley will not suffer from the rail link, the No TAV movement continues to question the worthiness, cost and safety of the project. It tries to support its claims with studies, expert statements and government documents from Italy, France and Switzerland. From these materials, members of the movement compiled a document containing 150 reasons for opposing the project.
- Some of the main objections are related to the environmental impacts, but there are also claims relating to health impacts, with some sections of the local community claiming that deposits of uranium and asbestos in the mountains could pose a hazard. Bufalini is unmoved by such claims. "The environment will pose no problems at all. The project is fully controlled by the Italian Minister of Environment." Furthermore, LTF studies show no uranium will be excavated during construction. "There was a possibility this might be encountered, but nobody found any uranium in other excavations in the same area," said Bufalini.
Protesters claim brutality by Italian authorities
- There are then claims about future saturation of the existing Fréjus rail tunnel route (which the new baseline tunnel is designed to supplement), which contradicts calculations by LTF. According to No TAV traffic usage of the existing line could actually decline in the future, throwing doubt on the economical feasibility of the high-cost tunnel element of the Lyon-Turin link. "It is like the opposition chooses a new mantra every time," says Bufalini. "First it was asbestos, then it was uranium, then the Mafia. Nowadays it is the money. I admit the economic situation is a concern. There is not much money and there are always those who suggest investing it in something else. Italy, however, has already committed to its €3 billion financing of the project."
- Work in the Susa Valley continues as LTF excavates the last access and survey tunnel at La Maddalena. Construction of the main tubes of the base tunnel is programmed to start in two years time. But it is still impossible to work on the construction sites without police protection. Despite everything, Bufalini is still proud of the project. "Against all this background of violent opposition we are now working on the project 24 hours a day. Two years ago nobody thought it was possible but now it is finally off the ground."
Progressing the Lyon-Turin base rail link - TunnelTalk, August 2013
Bi-national safety codes for Lyon-Turin rail link - TunnelTalk, August 2013
Add your comment
- Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and comments. You share in the wider tunnelling community, so please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language professional.