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Data: Wednesday, 30 November @ 09:40:48 CET
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da "The Boston Globe" 30/11/05
Pan-European high-speed train line draws fire from environmentalists
By Elisabeth Rosenthal, International Herald Tribune | November 30, 2005

VENAUS, Italy -- Along the crumbling road leading into this remote Alpine village stands a crude wooden shack whose purp
ose is announced by hand-scrawled signs that cover its walls: ''Help, the police are killing our valley" and ''Resist to exist." Another sign displays a charging locomotive obliterated by a big red X.

Volunteers at this makeshift guard post serve as an early-warning system charged with detecting the arrival of railroad construction crews for a pan-European high-speed freight line, a project that environmental groups and residents say will bring unfathomable environmental damage here.

''We can assemble hundreds of people in 10 minutes," said one of the men in the shack, who gave his name only as Baggio. ''We intend to try to stop this."

Venaus lies at a crucial link in a long-planned freight transport system that is intended to connect Western Europe and Eastern Europe. A line stretching from Barcelona to Kiev is to be the latest axis in Europe's high-speed rail network, known in Italian as the TAV, or treno ad alta velocit. To realize the pan-European dream, two big tunnels -- the longer one nearly 35 miles long -- are to be blasted into the mountains on either side of tiny Venaus, which sits in a narrow valley. They are to be connected ultimately with a viaduct to carry freight trains overhead.

After decades of planning, construction is to start today.

Far away in Brussels and Rome, officials view the transport route as a bold strategic project that will help move goods across a newly united Europe. They see the project as eco-friendly to boot, because freight will move in trains rather than, as it often does now, in trucks, which cause more pollution.

''This construction will bring huge environmental benefits: a sustainable transport system linking the two sides of the Alps," said Stefaan De Rynck, transportation spokesman at the European Commission in Brussels. ''You have to look at the big picture."

But here in Italy's northwest Piedmont region, which includes Turin and a large swath of Alpine valleys, the TAV is widely regarded as an environmental and public health disaster. Last month, 50,000 of the 70,000 inhabitants in the Susa valley, just a short distance from Venaus, joined a major protest.

''For 15 to 20 years, this will be a construction site, with stones, trucks, pollution, dust, and all the environmental issues," said Guido Fissori, 60, a retiree at the watch post. ''There is a uranium in the mountains on one side and asbestos on the other. Everyone is protesting."

Last month protesters prevented Italian police from taking possession of land designated as the construction site for the first tunnel, up a winding road on Mount Rocciamelone, a place of cascading waterfalls and hiking trails.

Since then, teams of police officers, including members of Italy's elite antiterrorist squad, have huddled against the cold at checkpoints along the mountain, screening visitors.

''From Barcelona to Kiev, no one else is protesting, except here," said Alessandro Meneghini, the police colonel in charge of guarding the hill.

In official circles, the protesters are regarded as spoilers, and the residents of these Alpine valleys are mostly resigned that, with powerful political forces against them, the $20 billion project will go forward.

''If you want a single European market and you want goods to move efficiently, you have to invest in new infrastructure," De Rynck said.

The European Commission is predicting a 50 percent increase in freight traffic by 2020, he said, adding that if Europe continued to rely primarily on trucks to transport goods, the societal costs would be unbearable. Air and noise pollution are already a serious problem along major routes, De Rynck said, and accidents in overcrowded tunnels are common.

Still, local politicians and environmental groups feel passionately that this land is being ravaged unnecessarily for Europe's vainglory. Freight projections are probably exaggerated, they say, and existing track and tunnels could be renovated to meet the demand.

''This valley is already choked with infrastructure: a highway, a rail line, two state roads, not do mention a river, which floods regularly," said Vanda Bonardo, director of Legambiente in Piemonte, Italy's largest environmental group. To build the tunnels, she said construction crews will have to remove ''a mountain" of rock, releasing pollutants into groundwater.

Then there is the issue of how to handle the asbestos and uranium, which are known to exist in these mountains.

European and Italian officials say that all required environmental-impact studies were completed and that there are construction methods that can keep residents safe from asbestos, for example.

But many here are unconvinced.

''There were mountains of environmental-impact documents and studies, but they were never really considered," said Nilo Durbiano, the mayor of Venaus. ''The answer is always: 'This project is strategic. Technology will solve these problems.' "

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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