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Freedom of research. Eni condemned for spurious litigation, requesting 5 million

The company will have to pay 50 thousand euros to the geologist Albina Colella (University of Basilicata) cited for defamation. She comments: “I’m doing a dangerous job”

The Civil Court of Rome has condemned the energy company ENI to pay 50 thousand euros to Professor Albina Colella, professor of geology at the University of Basilicata, which is based in Potenza. As a result of the sentence, ENI must pay 25 thousand euros for spurious litigation and another 25 thousand euros for legal fees. On 10 March 2015, ENI had sued Albina Colella asking for 5 million and 500 thousand euros for damages for defamation. The first degree ruling, issued on 7 July 2017, rejected the request.

ENI had accused the professor of having disclosed some news on an alleged water pollution issue, in the La Rossa district of the Municipality of Montemurro (in the province of Potenza) without relying on suitable scientific assessment. Albina Colella hypothesized that the impure waters that emerged in the ground near the Costa Molina 2 oil well could be fed by the same layer waters that ENI, after having separated them from the extracted hydrocarbons, returned to that reservoir with the “reinjection” technique (see more).

The Judge of the Court of Rome considered ENI’s request “exorbitant”. In the ruling it wrote that the dissemination of research results is part of the free expression of thought and – in this case – also the right to freedom of research, constitutionally guaranteed; that the story was linked to issues of quality of the environment which had been at the center of public debate for a long time and that it was as such an issue of public importance; finally, that the statements of the professor had never exceeded the limits of expressive countenance.

“This sentence is important – said Professor Colella, interviewed by Ossigeno – because it reaffirms the right to the manifestation of thought and guarantees the freedom of research, principles both guaranteed by our Constitution (“Art and science are free and free is their teaching”, states article 22, ed.). But also because the judge says that these principles are valid when the information is correct. The information must be documented by the facts. My statement was such, it was not just a mere opinion. I have done a scientific job. I published the results in international journals and presented them in international conferences. I have therefore subjected them to critical debate to competent people. I was quite sure of what I was saying. In science, scientific hypotheses are made and I have always talked about a scientific hypothesis, obviously supporting it with the data. This story tells me that even the job of the scientist, the researcher is becoming very dangerous. It teaches me that a person who really believes in what they say must be prepared to go all the way to support their convictions. I believed a lot in what I said”.

“This caused a sensation because the stakes were high and there was the risk that ENI could interrupt the oil production. The waters were rich in hydrocarbons, sodium, metals like lead and the characteristics were very similar to those of waste water.”

Albina Colella started her research in 2013 with funds from the University “on the request of Lucan citizens worried about the phenomenon that was occurring in those places where anomalous waters had appeared”, in particular following a request for help from the owner of the land, which has also turned to the local police. The research lasted until the available funds ran out. “I did not ask the University to refinance it – the professor explained – because it is kept afloat thanks to royalties coming from the oil’s extraction. I did not want to create problems or embarrass my colleagues “.

From the analysis, she said, I saw that “the waters were rich in hydrocarbons, sodium, and metals like lead. The characteristics were very similar to those of waste oil. This caused a sensation because the stakes were high: there was the risk that ENI could interrupt the oil extraction in Basilicata “.

ENI had reacted judicially after the local press, in some articles, reported the results of Albina Colella’s research. The professor had stated at a public conference that “in a preliminary interpretation” of the problem, the waters that emerged in the pools resembled “those of oil production”. The sentence had been reported by the newspapers. The teacher had repeated her convictions on television, participating in an episode of the TV show Presa Diretta, and the case gained national resonance.

ENI did not contest anything in the newspapers. In the writ of summons notified to the professor, the company accused her of having caused irreparable damages to the image and procured “social alarm” through the media echo of its declarations.

“The social alarm had been there since the nineties. In reality – commented Albina Colella – this story created damage only to my image”. She would have thought it right to get a higher compensation from the judge and explained why.

“Just before the case exploded – she explained – ENI’s lawyers had written a letter to me, to the rector of my University and to the Minister of Research, in which they made statements aimed at delegitimizing my professionalism. It was a private letter. But the next day the local newspapers slammed it on the front page, without even asking me for a comment or a reply. I learnt about it a long time later, otherwise I would have reacted. However, I consider myself lucky because the affair did not damage my career, because the rector took my defense and because civil society has always supported me”.

After the summons, the professor appeared in court, pointing out that she had conducted the research in full compliance with the code of ethics; that the polemics on the reinjection – long since at the center of public debate and the subject of parliamentary questions – dated back to 1996 and that the municipal administration of Montemurro had raised perplexity about that affair. “I started my research – she explained – just accepting repeated requests from citizens worried about those pools of water. Also, the University of Basilicata was founded affirming its commitment to the defense of the soil, engaging the teachers to listen to the demands of citizens and to disseminate their research on the problems of the territory. The teachers play a social role”.

Concerns about the effects of the reinjection of water in the Costa Molina 2 oil well raised by Professor Colella have been the subject of public attention even after the July 7, 2017 ruling. They are still subject to administrative disputes. On 27 October 2017, the follow-up to the verification of dangerous substances in one of the storage tanks of the stratum waters and overhead of the well, the Regional Council of Basilicata approved the suspension of the reinjection activity (see more). Then, on 19 December, following the results of new chemical analyses, the Regional Council itself lifted the suspension, requiring constant monitoring of the situation (read). Albina Colella commented that the spirit of her research was precisely that of requesting attention and insights from the bodies responsible for controls.

In any other case, Professor Colella is currently committed to defend herself in the Court of Appeal from a sentence of nine years imprisonment for extortion and embezzlement (read more) issued by the Court of Potenza, in 2015, in relation to a research project on the water resources of the Val d’Agri, financed by the Region with European funds.

RDM (gt)

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