As sludge from an oil spill began polluting the Po, Italy's longest river, raising fears of contamination of specialised farm products such as Parma cheese, ham or the famous arborio rice used in making risotto, central authorities in Rome struggled to find answers who could have deliberately set off the oil leak from an abandoned refinery near the town of Monza.

Prosecutors have begun an investigation into the spill, while president of Monza province Dario Allevi called the incident “a true act of environmental terrorism”. The spill was caused by a “criminal act” after tampering occurred at eight tanks used for oil storage, said Mr. Allevi. Several tanks had been deliberately ruptured, Italian newspapers reported. The spill was triggered in the early hours of Tuesday after saboteurs broke into the depot of the former Lombardi Petroli refinery in Villasanta and opened the valves, according to the ANSA news agency.

The oil slick, several kilometres long, moved downstream with the Lambro river from Villasanta, crossed the town of Monza, passed by the Milan area and then flowed into the Po. Monia Maccarini, a spokeswoman for the Lombardy region's environmental protection agency (ARPA), said the spill involved at least 260,000 gallons of oil and probably much more. The spill is said to be made up of diesel and home heating oil, known to be heavy and extremely sticky. Inhabitants of the region have been told not to drink tap water.

By Wednesday, despite efforts to contain the slick with absorbent pads and the closure of hydraulic locks, the oil seeped from the Lambro into the Po, considered my many to be Italy's lifeline, which flows west-to-east across the country.

Coldiretti, one of Italy's farmers' unions, insisted that the food chain was safe since the Po is not being used for irrigation. But another group of farm owners, Confagricultura, warned that the spring planting season — particularly for water-intensive rice crops — might be at risk unless clean water is ensured.

The Po river valley, which extends 71,000 sq. km. across several northern regions, produces a third of Italy's agricultural output and represents 40 per cent of the GDP. Because of its economic importance, officials are warning that farm output might be affected, in addition to the already extensive damage the slick has caused to the area's wildlife.

“We are facing a true environmental disaster. The problem does not concern only the Lambro river, but the Po throughout its length, right until it becomes a delta” said Legambiente, Italy's largest environmental organisation.

Though an investigation is on police are totally mystified by this act of sabotage and the motives behind it. Ecological organisations are raising embarrassing questions why, with the tanks holding such large quantities of fuel, the site was left unguarded.

Keywords: oil spillpollution

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