Research, development and realization: VincEnzo Monaco
English translation: Mario Di Dio
Giuseppe began to work in Pasquasia on June 15th 1959, to be precise at 2pm. First, though, he had to go to Caltanissetta to finalize some documents for the hiring process.
"As soon as I arrived in Caltanissetta they didn't want me to talk with the management. Then I raised my voice level and I explained that I was coming from the mine and that an engineer told me to go to them for documents. An office employee told me "but there's nobody here". Then I started screaming and a manager came out. After explaining everything, they welcomed me and I filled out the modules for the recruitment. On the 13th of June I received a communication. I had to go to the placement office in Enna. There were roughly thirty people, so we went to Pasquasia and there they said "Tom and Dick will begin to work in the afternoon". I went home and after lunch I started working."
Giuseppe Contino - Ex-worker in the subsoil
It took about five years of work for completing the construction of the mining wells. The company that was in charge of the project was german. One day, while working in the yard, Giuseppe accidentally wet an italian engineer and because of that an altercation born between the two. A german engineer came to help Giuseppe. Speaking in german, the engineer said, "Calm down Giuseppe, italian engineers are good only to keep the fold on their pants". In fact, the german engineers were always wearing overalls while working in the yard.
Pasquasia, Enna, Sicily, Italy. In the 1930s, as a result of drills and core drills, a field of sylvite (potassium chloride) was found. At the end of the drillings they estimated the field being composed by 60 millions cubic metres of salt, but then, with the direct exploration, it turned out to be only 6 million cubic meters. Without that estimation error the mine would have never be born. Later on, a field of Kainite (potassium sulfate) was discovered.
The Italkali management.The Italkali management marked the beginning of the golden age of the mine. The production cost went down. The cost for the cultivation of the mineral went down from 19,000 lire in 1981 to 11,000 lire in 1988. The production was growing year after year and the commercialization of Kainite found new markets abroad. The Kainite of Pasquasia was exported to Algeria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Japan, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.
The National Atomic Energy Agency. On April 26th 1986, the attention of the entire world was focused on the the nuclear disaster happened in Chernobyl, URSS. In that atmosphere the excavations for the realization of an underground laboratory in Pasquasia were started by the ENEA (Italian National Agency for Atomic Energy). ENEA studied the heat resistance of clays. From that moment on, the nightmare of becoming a nuclear waste site was spreading across the entire territory.
July 27th 1992 marked the official stop of the mining activities. The gates were closed on the the very same day when the company would have paid the salaries to the workers. That moment was followed by a period of strikes but Pasquasia remained closed without any notice.
In the mine workers were arranged in several shifts. The first shift was 7am to 1pm, the second one from 1pm to 7pm, the third one from 7pm to 1am and the fourth and last one was from 1am to 7am. Initially there was no public transports to get to work, it was organized later on. People was working outside of the wells, in the treatment plant, and in the subsoil. In the subsoil people worked in teams. Every worker had a specific task. Every worker knew that a handling error, however small, could cost the life of the entire team.
There were disagreements among workers, but as soon as they were getting on that cage, ie. the elevator that was taking them to more than 800 meters underground, fellow workers were united by a feeling of mutual solidarity.
Workers in the subsoil, despite the dust, noise and darkness, over the years, were able to establish a very personal relationship with those rocks. The mine, with its kilometers of tunnels, for some workers, was the perfect place to spend their day. For others, however, it was the opposite. Then, there were also workers who have returned to work in the mines, even though they had promised themselves to never do it again.
Sebastiano Vicari - Ex-worker in the subsoil
Until 1981 the mine was managed by two major public companies, the SPT (Sali Potassici Trinacria) and ISPEA (Industria Sali Potassici E Affini). Both public companies were managed by the Sicily local government through the EMS (Ente Minerario Siciliano). The SPT managed the mine site from its birth to 1967. On July of the same year, Mr Graziano Verzotto, a paduan politician of Christian Democratic orientation who moved to Sicily in 1955, became the EMS president; some months later, in 1968, the ISPEA was founded.
As often happens in most of the companies controlled by politics and trade unions, in the period from 1970 to 1977 the EMS suffered for a loss that has been estimated to be around 54 billion lire (the italian currency at the time). The EMS, in parallel with the island's mining heritage, was also managing hotel businesses and spas. In 1975 a scandal came out. Blacks funds, private interest, embezzlement were discovere and sixteen lawsuits were instantiated against Verzotto and his staff. Many of those lawsuits ended with no penalties for the suspects, except one in Milan ended with a four-year sentence. Verzotto had opened large deposit funds on behalf of the EMS in two banks owned (ironically) by Michele Sindona (an italian banker with clear connections to the Sicilian Mafia and member of Propaganda Due, a secret lodge of Italian Freemasonry). For years he had cashed out additional interests (under the table) to his bank account in Switzerland. While the general manager and the managing director of EMS were arrested admitting their crimes, Verzotto packed his bags and run away to Beirut and eventually he moved to Paris, where he spent the next 16 years hiding out. In 1991 he was reestablished by the general pardon ordered by the italian government.
On November 29th 1981, ISPEA sold its mining concession to Italkali for just 1,000 lire. It was the beginning of a new era. The transition from public to private payed off and it gave good hope for the future. There were no delays in the payment of salaries and the production increased as never before.
With the Italkali management the golden age of the mine began. Technology and logistics management changed. The production increased year after year and the Kainite marketing found new markets abroad. The Kainite of Pasquasia, the purest mineral on the market, was exported to Algeria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Japan, Greece, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey.
Vincenzo Lo Dico - Ex-worker in the subsoil
Take the pulp and throw the rest. Take the heart of the mineral blocks and leave the rest underground. They did not make any new tracking. In other words they did not prepare any new Kainite blocks for the extraction. They only worked on tunnels and yards created during the previous ISPEA management.
As expected, the new public-private management produced pros but also cons. Always at the cutting edge of finance innovation, the Sicily government experiments, among the first in Italy, what the terms "Good company" and "Bad Company" mean. The EMS, being the majority shareholder, covers the costs with flows of public money, while the Italkali, the minority shareholder, manages the mining site and benefits from sale profits.
Italkali revenue from the sale of potassium salts.
The EMS went bankrupt in 1997 and this costed to the taxpayers over 1,438 billion lire in thirty years. The management was definitely distant from the concept of the "diligence of a good family father", but making balances was premature at that stage. It was 1986 and the extraction is proceeding tirelessly.
Pasquasia, the most important potassium mine in Europe, is destined to make history. A history of countless characters, messengers and storytellers. Each of them with their own truth. Each of them with their own fear. Each of them with their own interests. It was the 26th of April 1986.
A tunnel, which connected external site with the subsoil, was crossing a particular type of clay. The National Agency for Atomic Energy (ENEA) came to Pasquasia in March 1986. An european project organized some studies regarding the disposal of radioactive waste. Every nation has its own lead agency and ENEA has the task of studying the thermal response of this type of clay in Pasquasia. Inside the tunnel, dug by ENEA, there are equipments for the study of clay, that's all.
The Chernobyl disaster together with the news of the presence of ENEA in Pasquasia was the right mix to fire up the local public opinion. Strikes and anti-nuclear demonstrations began. Local mayors, environmental groups and citizens did not want their home to become a nuclear dump. ENEA was forced to fast forward the closure of the laboratory and go away. There were people relieved to have avoided the worst, there are others who could take credit and make political career on this and there were those who continued their work in the mine, waiting for their shift to end.
The ENEA, for this operation, which ended in March 1987, payed 6 billion lire, although the production did not stop, not even for an hour.
No one talked about closure, but since the early nineties the first suspension of the activity and the first layoffs began. There were some suspicions, because the preparatory works, for the exploitation of others mineral blocks, were proceeding slowly. On the 27th of July 1992, the day on which the company should have paid the workers, the company closed its gates. "We arrived there and immediately we were told that we didn't have to work, that the production was suspended," says Giovanni Comito, "and then we were still there. We were clocking in and out, but we didn't actually work. We never went back to the subsoil again".
The total mineral deposit was about 160 million cubic meters of Kainite. At the time of closure it only a little bit more than half had been extracted. There was a lot of mineral, but it was necessary to design and build all the facilities to work the other mineral blocks.
PERIOD 1973 - 1992
Why did they close the mine? At this point, many possible ways open up, but none of them has ever been made official.
Some people has spoken of environmental issues: the salt treatment plant, not having a legal drain system, was discharging salted water and solvents in the Salso River. A salt water river. On February 1st 1991, a sicilian local law was approved to renovate the structure in accordance with law. On July 25th 1992, two days before the end of the production, the Sicily government published a public announcement for the realization of the modifications necessary to have the mine in accordance with the law: a controlled landfill, a sewage treatment plant, a salted water pipeline, start and management of the facilities. On February 9th 1993, seven months after stopping the production, the EU community allocates some funds for the construction of the wastewater disposal facilities.
Someone talked about unproductiveness, according to the studies of the Mining District of Caltanissetta the mine had only seven more years of extraction. On July 10th 1996, four years after the closure, two companies that worked in the worldwide potassium industry are interested in the management of the mine. The EMS jeopardized the announcement so that nobody can make an offer on time. Some others talked about international pressure to close the mine to preserve the economic interests of some companies of the sector. Someone else rumored that Italkali had no longer any interest in Pasquasia because it seems to be solely interested in the commercialization of the potassium salt extracted from an open quarry in Ukraine.
Finally, some people talked about nuclear waste. On this point we must pay more attention.
In June 30th 1992 Leonardo Messina, a mafia man of San Cataldo, confessed to Paolo Borsellino of a traffic of nuclear waste in Pasquasia started in 1984. His confessions were questioned after the massacre happened in Via D'Amelio on July 19th 1992 and at that point it was impossible to reconstruct what he had really said. The press is dominated by confusion and the magistrature did not consider some of his declarations trustworthy. It still remains an unsolved enigma.
After the closure of the mine, in the period from 1992 to 1999, Pasquasia had no security service. There were former workers who were making surveillance shifts, but the official security service began on November 1st 1999. After the closure, there were suspicious nocturnal movements around the mine and because of that several investigations started: the District Antimafia Directorate of Caltanissetta investigated about radioactive waste (investigation that was conducted in secret), while the Finance Police investigated on the illegal disposal of waste; and finally also the public prosecutor in Enna started investigating about radioactive waste. These movements add an additional unsolved enigma.
It's certainly interesting to know that the EMS took care of sealing the door which leads to the Pasquasia subsoil only in April 1996. In the meantime two journalists found some accompanying notes for the dispose of special waste, dated 1994, in an abandoned farmhouse, near the mine of Bosco Palo, in the province of Caltanissetta.
The unsolved enigmas are a lot but who should give an answer prefers to stay in the silence.
Vincenzo Ridente - Ex-worker in the subsoil
Someone, some time ago, said that to know the truth we must go out of the cave and face the pain that light causes to our eyes, eyes too accustomed to the darkness. And once we learned the truth and made it ours, the love for that truth would have led that courageous spirit to go back into the darkness and save those who had never dared.
In our case, entering to that cave is only the first step to dare of establishing where the truth dwells.