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Edison accused of polluting the Mediterranean

October 22, 2010

by Eleonora de Sabata and Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: October 22 2010

Edison, an Italian-French energy company, has been accused in court of severely polluting the Mediterranean seabed through disposal of oil waste products from drilling operations in Italy’s biggest offshore oilfield.

Italy’s environment ministry brought the case against Edison, accusing it of discharging more than 300,000 tonnes of oil sludge and bilge waters resulting from production at the Vega field off southern Sicily in contravention of international conventions on marine pollution.

The waste was injected 2,500 meters under the sea floor over a period of nearly 20 years, as well as almost 150,000 tonnes of “produced water” – water extracted with the oil – saving the company €67m ($93m) that would have been spent in waste treatment.

The state prosecutor set out his case at a pretrial hearing held in Modica, Sicily, late on Thursday. Edison’s defence lawyers are expected to respond on February 11, 2011, after which the judge will decide whether the case proceeds to a full trial.

Edison – named by Fortune Magazine this year as the world’s second “most admired” energy company – in a statement denied breaking marine pollution regulations. A company official, who asked not to be named, said the “produced water” had been injected into a safe and “hermetically sealed” oilfield with the permission of the minister of industry.

The company is Italy’s largest offshore oil producer and Europe’s oldest energy company. The Vega field is 60 per cent owned by Edison and 40 per cent by Eni, the Italian state-controlled energy group. Edison stressed the accident-free record of Vega where it said no oil had leaked into the environment since it started full production in 1987.

The ministry of environment says on its website that it did not issue a permit that Edison wanted in order for it to dispose of its “produced waters” waste under the seabed. Ministry experts told the Financial Times that the well was not suitable, especially after large quantities of acid were poured in to dissolve rocks and enlarge it. They predict that the waste will eventually leak into the environment, and note that the separate bilge waters cannot be reinjected under any circumstances. When asked about the bilge waste, Edison said it had no comment.

Operations in the Vega field halted in 2007 following coastguard inspections that revealed that Edison’s single-hull storage tanker was extensively corroded and did not meet industry standards. Production resumed last December after a new storage vessel, Leonis, built and managed by a local consortium, was moored at site.

In 20 years the Vega field, which lies 12 miles off the southern tip of Sicily in 120 meters of water, produced 55m barrels of heavy oil and is expected to yield a further 12m barrels over the next decade.

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