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Italian Asbestos Mine Offers Hope For an End to Mesothelioma

MesotheliomaFormer asbestos mining sites around the world present a contamination load and continuing risk to human health that is frightening. The reclamation of one closed asbestos mine in Italy, however, offers hope for a future where mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are almost unknown.

A Toxic Discovery: Chrysotile Asbestos

The tiny Italian towns of Balangero and Corio are nestled in the foothills of the Alps north of Turin (Torino). They have become famous in recent decades as the neighbors of one of the most toxic sites in Europe: the Balangero Asbestos Mine.

In 1907, in serpentine rock formations, miners discovered fibrous chrysotile, a form of serpentine also called white asbestos. Chrysotile, like other forms of asbestos, was prized for its insulating properties.

The Balangero mine began extracting chrysotile in the 1920s from an open pit mine or “glory hole.” The operation used methods to crush rock and dispose of asbestos-laden mine tailings that contaminated the mine site and its surroundings with toxic dust. Workers crushed and bagged asbestos wearing little or no safety gear. Tailings were dumped over an incline and down a ravine. Over the years, the dumpsite built up a 45-degree slope, creating an unstable mass of asbestos tailings that threatened to cause a toxic rockslide.

In 1990, the company that operated the mine went bankrupt and the Balangero mine closed, leaving behind a denuded and scarred hillside and a 400-hectare (approximately 1,000 acres) site thoroughly contaminated with asbestos. The dumpsite was considered one of the most hazardous sites in Italy. If it were located in the United States, it would have been labeled a Superfund site.

A 2008 study found a higher than normal incidence of mesothelioma among former workers at the mine (both blue collar and office personnel). The study also found a mesothelioma cluster among local residents who had never worked at the mine but were exposed to asbestos fibers that contaminated the air, land, and water around the Balangero mine.

Back to Nature: Remediation of an Asbestos Mine

In 1992, after Italy banned asbestos, it became clear that the mine would never reopen. Several local and regional governments banded together to clean up the site. A fund of 40 million Euros (44 million dollars) was created to pay for the remediation.

In the late 1990s, after careful planning, crews in hazmat gear began working to clean up the former mine, which included a number of buildings filled with machinery contaminated with asbestos, the glory hole (now filled with water), several tunnels through the mountain, and the unstable slope of the dump site.

One of the first steps was to reintroduce vegetation on hillsides laid bare by decades of mining and grading. Crews dropped seeds from helicopters across the excavated moonscape and new life began to sprout.

The most critical task was to stabilize the slope where the mine had dumped its dry tailings. A landslide could send a cloud of asbestos fibers into the air, raising the risk of mesothelioma in surrounding communities, as well as contaminate a nearby waterway. The remediation group set up a tramway to airlift out some of the contents of the overfilled dump. The remaining slope in the dumpsite was stabilized with wires and logs. Plantings were added to further prevent erosion of the slope.

The design called for the creation of wooden conduits to channel water and prevent erosion. The water that runs off the slope of the dumpsite is captured and filtered at the bottom of the hill before it enters a local creek, to prevent toxic asbestos fibers from entering the waterway.

The remediation group set up an enclosed warehouse on the site where they carefully sealed and bagged toxic materials from the Balangero mine. The processing machinery will be decontaminated and the metal melted down.

During the remediation process, trucks spray roadways and other surfaces to keep asbestos fibers from becoming airborne. Vehicles are decontaminated before they leave the site.

Return of a Green Valley

Almost two decades on, remediation is not yet complete and much of the original funding remains to be spent. As part of the project, monitoring stations check the ambient air for asbestos fibers so crews can target their remediation efforts and ensure that air quality goals are being met.

Amazing progress has been made, however, in transforming one of Italy’s most toxic sites back to the verdant landscape that existed before the Balangero mine opened.

A recent YouTube video about the reclamation shows a brilliant blue lake in place of the ugly hole of the chrysotile asbestos mine pit. The grim, barren landscape of the abandoned mine has been replaced by verdant hillsides. If you didn’t know what had been there before, you might think this was just another one of the lovely alpine landscapes that Northern Italy is famous for.

Even more importantly, generations of residents in Balangero, Corio, and other neighboring towns will be spared the mesothelioma risks that The remediation is putting toxic asbestos where it belongs: safely underground.

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