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Sicilian towns face bankruptcy over Etna clean-up costs

Italian government earmarks €5m to help villages get rid of volcanic cinders from erupting volcano

CItizen of Giarre cover their heads from volcanic ash from Mount Etna
CItizen of Giarre cover their heads from volcanic ash from Mount Etna with umbrellas. Giarre is one of the village most affected by the recent eruptions. Photograph: Alessio Mamo
CItizen of Giarre cover their heads from volcanic ash from Mount Etna with umbrellas. Giarre is one of the village most affected by the recent eruptions. Photograph: Alessio Mamo
in Palermo

Last modified on Thu 22 Jul 2021 00.09 EDT

Dozens of Sicilian towns face bankruptcy due to the cost of cleaning up the volcanic ash left by Mount Etna, which has been erupting regularly since February.

The Italian government on Monday allocated €5m to compensate several villages struggling to pay to get rid of the volcanic cinders, the cost of which can reach more than €1m with every eruption.

“The situation is very serious,” said Alfio Previtera, a council official in the town of Giarre, one of the villages most affected by Etna’s ash. ‘‘Streets, squares, roofs, balconies, cars – everything is covered in ash. Since March, about 25,000 tons of ash have fallen on our town. People are using umbrellas as protection.’’

According to Italian law, ash is considered special refuse, which increases the cost of its disposal to about €20 (£17) a cubic metre.

A car covered by the volcanic ash from Etna. Car owners in Giarre have to cover them with plastic sheets to protect them.
A car covered by volcanic ash from Etna. Car owners in Giarre use plastic sheets to protect their vehicles. Photograph: Alessio Mamo

“With each eruption, Etna spews tens of thousands to 200,000 cubic metres of ash,” says Boris Behncke, a volcanologist at the National Institute of Geophysics in Catania. “It’s a serious problem for municipalities.”

“In order to face this emergency, several towns have amassed a vast amount of debt,’’ said Previtera. “We are facing a financial collapse.”

To avoid bankrupting the villages, the senate last week approved a law that ash need no longer be considered special waste.

“The law will significantly reduce disposal costs,” says Silvio Grasso, an engineer and head of the civil protection of Giarre. “The law provides, for example, that the ash can be used in agriculture to make the land more fertile, or in construction as a cementing or filler material. Of course, the problem also persists because Etna has not yet finished erupting.”

Since February, Etna, which is 3,300 metres (10,800ft) above sea level, has been erupting in spectacular fashion, with lava fountains 2,000 metres high. Volcanologists at the National Institute of Geophysics in Catania who are studying the ash say it reflects what they call “primitive magma”, which comes from the bowels of the mountain and carries a greater charge of gas, which explains the unusually tall eruptions.

A fresh eruption at Etna behind the Santa Maria della Guardia church in Belpasso, Catania
A fresh eruption at Etna behind the Santa Maria della Guardia church in Belpasso, Catania. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Thousands of inhabitants and farmers live and work on the volcano, and are having to deal with a near-constant rain of cinders on roofs and balconies.

“It’s getting really annoying”, says Pinella Astorina, 74, who lives in Trecastagni, a small town on the slopes of the volcano. “We spend the day removing the ashes from our homes. The problem is when it accumulates on the roofs, risking clogging the drain pipes. It could cost €300-400 euros to remove the cinders from your roof.”

The national civil protection service has planned an emergency meeting to discuss the inconvenience to citizens. Local authorities have advised people to once again wear protective masks outdoors after the Italian government earlier this month lifted the obligation to wear them against Covid-19.