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Sabina Castelfranco | Rome 26 February 2010
A view of the polluted Lambro river waters caused by an oil psill, in San Zenone, near Milan, northern Italy, 24 Feb 2010
Italian environmental officials are warning of an ecological disaster in Italy caused by an oil spill flowing down the Po River. They say water and bird species are at risk, as well as a fertile agricultural area. The say the oill spill has already caused significant damage and the scale of the problem is dramatic.
Italian authorities say it is a race against time to stop a massive oil slick flowing down Italy's longest river. The black tide continues down the Po River and is expected to reach the Adriatic by the weekend. Recent heavy rains have swollen the river allowing the oil to move quickly despite efforts to contain it.
In an urgent report to parliament on Thursday, environment undersecretary Roberto Menia said the oil slick would reach the Adriatic within a maximum of 70 hours.
The official said three-and-a-half million liters of oil have already poured into the river and the environmental devastation is there for everyone to see. The oil has already killed hundreds of birds and fish. Residents have been told to avoid drinking tap water. They say there is a terrible stench.
This woman says they are not only concerned but also angry. What is the point of stopping cars for pollution, she asks, and then these kinds of things are done.
Efforts have been underway using at least five floating barriers to trap the oil on the waterway's surface. But it is proving to be a difficult task for civil protection officials and fire-fighting teams dispatched to the area.
Two Italian regions, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, have already requested that a state of emergency be declared. Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo flew over the entire affected area by helicopter on Thursday.
The oil spill began Tuesday following what environmental authorities are calling "a true act of environmental terrorism." The oil stored in tanks in a former refinery was sabotaged when someone opened the main valve.
Police say the saboteur must have had a working familiarity with the refinery to be able to open the tank's main valve and send tons of oil pouring out.
Officials say the act was intentional and an investigation has been opened into the spill, which is already more than 100 kilometers long.
Damiano di Simine, Lombardy president for the Legambiente environmental group, said immediate action should have been taken to avoid such a disaster.
The criminal act itself is extremely serious, he says, but even more serious is the fact that the oil was allowed to pour out for hours without anyone intervening or even realizing what was happening.
Meanwhile the oil spill has reached Italy's important food-producing province of Parma. But farm groups were quick to reassure that the food chain is safe because farm production is low at this time of the year.
The Po river valley is the most important agricultural region in Italy, producing a third of Italy's agricultural output.