During WWII, on their way to bomb northern Italy English and American pilots could see under them a huge white spot. By that they knew they were flying over Casale Monferrato, also known as “the white town.”
The roofs of the houses were, in fact, covered in white by the asbestos dust coming off the Eternit plant. The multinational Eternit opened its biggest plant in Casale Monferrato in 1907 to produce chimney flues, high pressure pipes, plain and corrugated boards, and even water tanks. The location was perfect for an asbestos cement plant: Casale is located in a territory famous for its clay, a necessary ingredient for cement production, and 100 km from Balangero, the site of the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in Western Europe.
Throughout the plant’s production life a massive quantity of asbestos dust was dispersed into the atmosphere through the factory chimneys that had no protective filters. The countryside, communities and water supplies around the plant were contaminated. Another pollution source was the so-called “polverino,” the dust generated during production activity that workers were given as a gift to be used as a base for courtyards and as insulating material.
From at least 1962 it was widely know that asbestos causes a serious illness such as pleural mesothelioma. Nonetheless, Eternit kept producing it until 1986 by keeping the workers unaware of the damages caused by asbestos (especially in the long term) in order to prolong the production activity and to increase profits.
More than 1,600 people have died in Casale Monferrato for asbestos related pathologies. The victims were not only former Eternit workers, but also town inhabitants not related to the factory.
For the deaths and for the environmental disaster caused by Eternit in Casale Monferrato there are no guilty charges. On 19th November 2014, in fact, Italy’s highest court has vacated the 18-year-jail sentence for former CEO, the Swiss tycoon Stephan Schmideiny because the statute of limitations had passed. The verdict of the highest court also has nullified the compensation of over 80 million euros for the victims established by the Appeal Court of Turin on june 2013.