Legal proceedings in Italy certainly have made the news lately. The appeals trial of Amanda Knox, an American university student who was convicted of killing her roommate, and several moves to prosecute Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi because of ongoing revelations -- including lurid details of his personal life -- have received wide international coverage. However, what interests me more is a trial of six technical experts and a government official that began in late September -- because it might significantly impact how risks are communicated to the public, and not just in Italy.
The seven face manslaughter charges as a consequence of a severe earthquake that hit central Italy in April 2009. If convicted, they might serve a decade or longer in prison. In addition, civil suits seek financial damages from them.
The earthquake devastated the area around the town of L'Aquila. The quake, which had a 5.8 magnitude on the Richter scale, destroyed or damaged thousands of buildings, including many medieval ones, and killed more than 300 people. It followed a series of smaller tremors that had hit the region during prior months.
The seven defendants -- Enzo Boschi, president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) at the time of the quake; Franco Barberi of Roma Tre University; Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic risk office at Italy's Department of Civil Protection; Claudio Eva of the University of Genoa; Giulio Selvaggi, director of INGV's National Earthquake Center; Gian Michele Calvi, president of the European Center for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering; and Bernardo De Bernardinis, a government official who was vice-director of the Department of Civil Protection at the time -- served on a disaster risk committee for the L'Aquila area. They met just days before the earthquake hit. Following that meeting, Barberi, De Bernardinis and some local officials held a press conference that basically downplayed the risk of a major quake occurring soon and didn't promote the need for earthquake preparedness.
The move to prosecute the seven, when revealed last year, drew condemnation from a number of prestigious scientific groups, including the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Basically, such groups argued that because it's still impossible to predict earthquakes, the committee members had no reason to warn an earthquake was imminent and were being made into scapegoats.
A recent column by Stephen S. Hall in Nature provides a lot of background, including comments from Italy and elsewhere, (www.nature.com/news/2011/110914/full/477264a.html) and gives the perspective of local prosecutor Fabio Picuti:
"'I know they can't predict earthquakes. The basis of the charges is not that they didn't predict the earthquake. As functionaries of the state, they had certain duties imposed by law: to evaluate and characterize the risks that were present in L'Aquila.' Part of that risk assessment, he says, should have included the density of the urban population and the known fragility of many ancient buildings in the city centre. 'They were obligated to evaluate the degree of risk given all these factors,' he says, 'and they did not.'
'This isn't a trial against science,' insists Vittorini, who is a civil party to the suit. But he says that a persistent message from authorities of 'Be calm, don't worry,' and a lack of specific advice, deprived him and others of an opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do on the night of the earthquake. 'That's why I feel betrayed by science,' he says. 'Either they didn't know certain things, which is a problem, or they didn't know how to communicate what they did know, which is also a problem.'"
In an earthquake-prone area like the region around L'Aquila, if experts were too liberal in assessing hazards, warnings might occur fairly frequently -- and the public might start downplaying or even disregarding them. Achieving an appropriate balance in communicating risk is tricky.
This dilemma should sound familiar to chemical makers. Today, thank goodness, it's no longer acceptable to keep the public in the dark about hazards posed by operations. So, many plants undoubtedly struggle with what and when to communicate about risks and appropriate measures to mitigate them to people in neighboring communities.
It will be interesting to see how this case plays out and whether it offers any real insights.
Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor-in-Chief. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.