After 9 years, rules for dredging will be ready

Genoa - The government’s aim is to come to Genoa Shipping Week, the most important annual event in the maritime sector, with an innovative package of dredging measures: a problem that may not be visible, but has huge effects on over 100 Italian ports.


di Alberto Quarati

Genoa - The government’s aim is to come to Genoa Shipping Week, the most important annual event in the maritime sector, with an innovative package of dredging measures: a problem that may not be visible, but has huge effects on over 100 Italian ports (not only the 24 commercial ports, but also fishing and yachting harbours). When the event begins in mid September, Undersecretary of the Environment Silvia Velo is aiming to present three decrees for the purpose of creating order in the sector: new rules defining the so-called ‘Sites of National Interest’ (SINs, the most heavily polluted areas or areas in danger of being polluted); fixed rules for the cleanup of channel bottoms and dredging within these sites; and finally, the implementing decree for article 109 of the Consolidating Law on the Environment of 2006, which institutes the procedure for the placement of dredged material.

Dredging serves to keep the depth of a port’s waterways constant (or deepen them) and therefore ensure its accessibility. Every year, for example, Rotterdam (the largest port in European, all built on a tributary of the Rhine) dredges up 20 million cubic metres of material. In Italy, because of the complexity of bureaucratic procedures, extraordinary interventions incorporated into the ports’ strategic plans or introduced as variants to them are often used in place of regular maintenance activity.

The Federazione del Mare (port users) and Assoporti (port authorities) called for a reorganisation of the laws on the subject years ago. The problem is particularly serious for the ports located in the SIN areas, which were created in 1998 following the cleanup at Bagnoli, when the Regions began to compete for easy financing, theoretically intended for sea and river-bed clean-ups, which in fact never reached its destination. The case of Naples is a clear example, where the port is descending into a deeper and deeper crisis because it is off limits to the latest generation of ships. In fact, clean-ups, rather than dredging, are being done in the SIN areas: this means that the mud removed must be stored in special areas, based on the assumption that it is polluted.

The SINs of 1998 covered areas that were too large for the financial capacities of the Port Authorities and other entities with power over the sea and river bottoms. If dredging actually costs five euros per cubic metre, clean-ups in SIN areas costs 60 to 100, depending on where the material excavated from the sea-beds is to be deposited. Without the implementing decrees of the Consolidating Law of 2006, the entire procedure is left in the hands of an inter-departmental meeting that is only held once per year at the Ministry of the Environment.

This is why no clean-up has been done in some SIN areas: as in the Marano Lagoon (Friuli), where the SIN was finally abolished after an investigation uncovered fraud that had cost the state €100 million, committed by companies that were profiting from the rigidity of the inspection system. Dredging was carried out this year, after a 13-year wait. Some emergency dredging was done in 2013, only after it became possible to walk through areas that were meant for ships to pass through. The complexity of the rules was quickly understood at La Spezia, a SIN port that first did what will soon be possible with the Velo Decrees: delimit the areas that really need to be cleaned up (based on ICRAM studies).

Despite this foresight, bureaucracy, appeals and inspections resulted in the areas being defined in 2002 (five of them, with a decree from three ministries), and work began in 2007, while the last lot went to tender one month ago. In 2013 (during the Monti government) 18 SIN areas were transformed into SIR (Sites of Regional Interest), which shortens the decision-making process. This is what happened at Livorno and Marina di Carrara, the latter being a port that carried out dredging at a cost of 100 euros per cubic metre under the SIN regime, and was required to deposit the material in the sediment tanks at the port of Livorno.

Following the award of competency to the region, the port will dredge 1.5 million cubic metres at 7 euros/cubic metre, now that it has been scientifically proven that the mud is not polluted. The mud will contribute to the restoration of North-western Tuscany’s coastlines. Up until 1998, there were no restrictions on dredging: a place was chosen offshore outside the port, and the mud pulled up between the docks was unloaded there. Or, in the case of Genoa (a non-SIN port which has almost finalised an impressive plan for 3.5 million cubic metres of dredging, to be deposited in the sediment tanks at Bettolo) up until the 1990s, moved the mud from one part of the port to the other, progressively making the channel depth shallower and shallower.