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Failure to warn of risks led to quake convictions

Judge says Italian scientists should have communicated L’Aquila quake risks better.


L’Aquila: Scientists were convicted for failing to warn of risks of major quake

Scientists were convicted of manslaughter following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy because they failed to communicate the risks of such an event, according to the judge who presided over the case.

Judge Marco Billi last October convicted five geologists, a physicist and a public official for manslaughter following the devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake that killed 309 people in the small town of L’Aquila on 6 April 2009 (NCE 9 April 2009).

All seven received six year jail terms but none has begun their sentence as they plan to appeal.

Billi’s “motivazione della sentenza “or reason for sentencing is unequivocal on his belief in their guilt.

“The charge against the accused seems fully valid: the statements made regarding the risk assessment of the seismic activity in the L’Aquila area were absolutely vague, generic and ineffective,” said Billi.

His explanation runs for almost 900 pages and stresses that he convicted the men because they failed to communicate the risks properly and not because they failed to predict the earthquake.

“We are not putting on trial ‘science’ for failing to predict the earthquake,” the judge wrote. “The task of the defendants was certainly not to predict or prophesy the earthquake and state its month, day, hour and magnitude, but was rather, more realistically, to predict and prevent risks, in conformity with the law.”

The judge’s reasoning focuses on a meeting of Italy’s Commissione Grande Rischi (Commission of Big Risks) six days before the quake.

L’Aquila mayor Massimo Cialent requested the meeting following a series of foreshocks in the area. He wanted to decide whether it was appropriate to close a number of schools and evacuate older buildings.

The exact details of the meeting are still unclear but the one civil member of the commission Bernardino De Bernardinis appeared on TV assuring the population that the foreshocks were releasing energy and reducing the probability of a major shock.

Italy’s geology institute the Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV) slammed the judge’s ruling. “This document focuses the attention on very short-term earthquake forecasting, despite the clearly established impossibility to predict the occurrence of a strong earthquake in terms of time, location, and intensity,” said INGV president professor Stefano Gresta.

Gresta rejected the claim that the scientists failed to communicate the risk. He said hazard maps were discussed in the meeting and risk was clearly communicated by the seismologists.

Consultant Arup seismic specialist Damian Grant, who has examined the ruling, said he thought it was wrong for advice offered in good faith to be used in the context of a criminal investigation.”Predicting earthquakes is an inexact science,” he added.

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