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Messina bridge: E.C. funding blocked for environmental concerns?

Agenzia ANSA
  Italy`s plans to build a bridge linking Sicily to the Italian mainland were hit Tuesday when the European Commission said it might withhold its slice of the funding because of environmental concerns.
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“Italy has not carried out a study on the environmental impact (of the bridge) that meets the Commission`s requirements,” said a spokesman for Environmental Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

The spokesman said Italy had been informed of the risk of losing the funding, which amounts to 10-20% of the overall costs. “The government now has two months to supply the required information, then wéll see.” He said that in the meantime the funding procedure would go ahead, stressing that witholding the funds was only a theoretical possibility as things stand.

“The funding will not be released unless the procedures are complied with. Blocking the subsidies is only a theoretical possibility for now, but it is a possibility.” The Italian government was initially expected to pick up about half the estimated 6.5 billion-euro price tag for the bridge, Premier Silvio Berlusconi`s flagship infrastructure project . But with private groups and the European Union chipping in, that is now projected to drop to less than 40%.

Tuesday`s unexpected blow came a week after a consortium led by major engineering group Impregilo was chosen to build what would be the world`s longest suspension bridge. If the EU pulled its funds it would pose a serious threat to the project, forcing the government to find an alternative source or risk overshooting EU limits on budget spending.

In March, opposition parties and environmental groups sent the European Commission formal complaints against the bridge, saying it breached EU directives. Anti-bridge campaigners voiced confidence the EU would slash its contribution to the project once it became clear what it entailed.

Work on the bridge is scheduled to begin by early 2006 and end by 2012. It will be 3,690 metres long – although the entire length of the construction could reach 5,070 metres. It is expected to be able to handle 4,500 cars an hour and 200 trains a day. According to Transport and Infrastructure Minister Piero Lunardi, the bridge will bring Sicily closer to Europe and help change its mentality.

Since the plans were revealed in 1996, the project has been dogged by concerns over its safety and fears of potential Mafia involvement. Environmentalists are strongly opposed, claiming it will threaten large areas of countryside on both sides of the strait and will be unsafe in an area at high risk of earthquakes. Capo Peloro, a sparsely populated headland just over the water from the toe of the Italian boot, has been at the centre of environmentalists` concerns about the effects of the project. The area, known for its rich bird and animal life, lies only a few kilometres from the site chosen for the Sicilian end of the bridge.

Despite the protests from the various groups, the government has been undeterred. Engineering construction giant Impregilo won a multi-billion-euro contract last Wednesday to build the bridge. Impregilo is Italy`s leading engineering and general contracting company and was formerly the construction unit of automaker Fiat. It has put together an international consortium which includes Japan`s Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries and Spain`s Sacyr Vallehermoso.

(ANSA) – Rome, October 25.

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