Idyllic Italian town protests US army base

US military antennas in Sicily may increase the safety of soldiers, but Italians are worried about the health effects.

Palermo, Italy – Hundreds of letters have been sent to US President Barack Obama from a tiny school in the Sicilian town of Niscemi, asking him to halt the construction of the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), a next generation military satellite communication facility.

“I couldn’t  believe that the US has installed all these antennas,” said Giuseppe Maida, a teacher at the local institute. And now the US is at war, and the war was declared by a group of mothers, who today are marching in the streets of Palermo.

The MUOS is to be built on the Niscemi US Naval Radio Transmitter Facility (NRTF) base, where 44 antennas have been operating since 1991, 21 of which, according to US military documents, are still active today.

Dressed in white, “Mothers against MUOS”, as they call themselves, held the banner, “Our children are not your guinea pigs.”

Over the past several months, protesters have held rallies and blocked trucks carrying construction materials into the base. 

“Our children are worried, they ask me what are those antennas,” said Concetta Gualato, 45, who is their unofficial spokesperson. “I live 800 metres away from the facility, and I don’t want them to get sick.”

Stephen Anderson, a spokesperson for the US embassy, said those concerns are unfounded. “In the US we have similar systems that are located, in fact, closer to population centres and have had no reported negative health or environmental impacts on the communities,” he said. 

But Niscemi’s citizens are not satisfied with their explanations and are worried of the consequences of extended exposure to electromagnetic fields for the human body.

About 2,000 protestors gathered recently in Palermo, accusing Rosario Crocetta, President of Sicily,  of betraying his own people by revoking the ban on the construction.

This is a political-military agreement between our government and the US, and no Italian government is willing to contradict it. It was not me who authorised this construction.

by - Rosario Crocetta, President of Sicily

A US-Italy agreement

In his own defence, Crocetta said, “This is a political-military agreement between our government and the US, and no Italian government is willing to contradict it. It was not me who authorised this construction.” He referred to his predecessor, Raffaele Lombardo, who in 2011, signed a memorandum of understanding with former Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa.

The MUOS will enable US troops on the ground to easily speak with, and send multimedia information to their command bases worldwide . Up to now, soldiers had to carry little antennas and stand in open fields to establish a connection with a satellite, thus being exposed to enemy fire.

“With the MUOS, they will be able to transmit and receive information on the move, increasing their own safety,” said Francesco Tosato, Military Affairs researcher at the Centre for International Studies (CeSI).

The MUOS is based on four ground station facilities, with four, 20-metre antennas each. The first two stations have been built near the cities of Chesapeake in Virginia, and Honolulu in Hawaii, while a third one will be built near the city of Geraldton, Australia.

Niscemi’s NRTF is part of the US Naval Air Station located in Sigonella, and was chosen for its strategic position. Located in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, Sicily has been a military asset since the end of World War II, and “after the flare-up of the Arab Spring, the Middle East has turned into an instable area, which is of increasing concern to NATO countries,” said Andrea Carati, Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).

Alongside the MUOS, Sigonella will in fact host the prototype of the Alliance Ground Surveillance system ( AGS ), aimed at enabling NATO “to perform persistent surveillance over wide areas from high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial platforms operating at considerable stand-off distances and in any weather or light condition”, thanks to the use of drones.

Health concerns

Those facts, however, have not made residents feel more secure. “We have been hosting, not only the other 44 antennas, but we’ve also been plagued by the presence of Gela’s refinery,” Major Francesco La Rosa said . “We cannot always be the ones to sacrifice.”

Until last January, the construction work proceeded by fits and starts, among revocations and court rulings; then Crocetta commissioned an independent study to be conducted by the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), and imposed an immediate halt.

According to the ISS report  issued in July, there is no evidence that the electromagnetic fields pose any risk to human health but further monitoring was recommended.

“We based our research on the data collected by the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) in a ten-day campaign,” explained ISS research manager Loredana Musmeci, “but we stressed that the authorities must monitor the area continuously, especially after the system will be installed.”

Politicians  and diplomats interpreted the findings as a green light for the construction to go on. “I have no reason to act differently,” said Crocetta. “If the ISS has confirmed that all the procedures adhered to Italian laws, then everything else I do would be considered a felony.”

No risk to the public

Nevertheless, technicians and scientists remain divided. Massimo Zucchetti and Massimo Coraddu, professors at the Engineering University of Turin and advisors to Niscemi’s administration, criticised  the study for being unable to create a reliable predictive model of the radiation, due mainly to the lack of appropriate data. “ISPRA measured the emissions only partially, with some existing antennas tuned off,” said Zucchetti, who also believes that the ISS did not take into account the electromagnetic fields generated by the existing facility.

So far, ISS has firmly defended its work, saying their model was developed based on documentation provided not only by ISPRA, but also by the Regional Agency for the Protection of the Environment and the US Defence Department. 

In addition, Alessandro Polichetti, Director of the ISS’ non-ionic radiation department, explained that they decided to ignore the emission of the existing antennas because “they are so low that I should have considered a limit of 5.9 volts instead of 6 volts per square metre, which, given the possibility of a measurement error, is pretty much the same”.

Nevertheless, doubts are still in the air. According to professor Marcello D’Amore, advisor of the Administrative Regional Court (TAR), one of the problem is the lack of comprehensive information provided by the military. “I judge the US Navy report as superficial, a few pages that don’t set up an accurate simulation of the electromagnetic fields,” he said.

The next chapter of this long and tangled story can be set exactly at TAR, where La Rosa filed a complaint. “In Palermo they have already decided everything,”  he said, “but I’ll fight in the court, asking for a halt in the construction.” The ruling is expected on October 10.

In the meantime, among vineyards, orange groves, and granaries, the MUOS keeps growing.

Follow @MikeBertelli and @rosariosardella on Twitter.

Source: Al Jazeera