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Italy quake roles too vague

Engineers demand ability to advise on quake risks without fear of prosecution

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L’Aquila: Seismologists convicted for inadequate warning

Earthquake experts in Italy this week called for laws to be clarified to ensure that they can advise without fear of prosecution, NCE has learnt this week.

Commissione Grande Rischi (Commission of Big Risks) member Aldo Zollo told NCE there should be greater clarity about roles and responsibilities when advice on seismic risks to the public is published. The CGR advises Italian authorities about hazards and risks.

Zollo spoke to NCE after Judge Marco Billi explained his reasoning for convicting five geologists, a physicist and a public official of manslaughter last October after the devastating magnitude 6.3 earthquake that killed 309 people in the small town of L’Aquila in April 2009.

Zilli said he convicted the men because they failed to communicate the earthquake risks properly. Zollo said this reasoning set a precedent which will put undue pressure on such people on future. He believes there has to be a clearer distinction between the role of those offering expert advice and those who acting on it.

“The scientists, who are the lower link in the chain of the responsibility, by expressing their opinion, can’t be bound by the effects that this decision will have on the community or even on themselves and bear the responsibilities arising from the action or inaction of other people using their advice,” said Zollo.

“Although the rules of operation of the present Commission ensure better transparency and separation of tasks between scientists and decision-makers, the risk of being criminally negligent for the consequences of a scientific opinion on a seismic crisis is still concrete and even on the agenda,” he added.

Zollo said many CGR members had resigned since the verdict because fearing being they could risk prosecution.

“They have resigned because in the present state law there isn’t a clear regulation of the role and responsibility - civil or penal - of the expert members of these commissions,” added Zollo.

Billi’s verdict is affecting local authorities across Italy. Last month, fears of prosecution prompted local mayors in the Garfagnana district of Tuscany to evacuate homes following a series of 4.8 magnitude tremors .

The tremors were measured by Italy’s geology institute the Instituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV). INGV research director Alberto Michilini said his personal view was that the evacuations were an overreaction and highlighted the “absurdity” of the recent L’Aquila verdict.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Gio Scilipoti

    Perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt here, Engineers / Scientists shouldn't confuse 'personal opinions' with 'expert advice' and should refrain from airing publicly their opinions on serious matters like risk to people's lives from events such earthquakes. For some people the attraction of the spotlights from public media and the desire of being on the first pages of newspapers is too difficult to resist.

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