Complaints of environmental neglect follow deadly Italian flood

ROME Tue Aug 5, 2014 1:58pm EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - A flash flood that killed four people at a summer festival in northern Italy has reopened long-standing complaints that chronic environmental neglect has destabilized fragile hillsides and created the conditions for deadly landslides.

A thunderstorm on Saturday sent a wall of water and mud through a gathering of about 100 people by a stream in the foothills of the Alps near the town of Refrontolo in the Veneto region, sweeping away cars and injuring about 20 people.

Italy's mountainous landscape leaves it vulnerable to flooding and landslides, and reckless construction is often held responsible for putting lives at risk. Agriculture group Coldiretti says landslides and floods have caused more than 4,000 deaths since 1960.

Consumer lobby group Codacons has asked the regional prosecutor to investigate whether Saturday's flooding could have been caused by a failure to clear the stream, which was partially blocked by a landslide last year.

"We want to know whether there was any negligence that contributed to causing the flood and we are asking the prosecutor to establish the responsibility of public and private entities, in light of their possible complicity in the disaster," Codacons chairman Carlo Rienzi said in a statement.

Politicians from across party lines weighed in on the need for action to protect against the risk of landslides and floods which have also damaged sites like the ancient city of Pompeii.

Laura Puppato, a senator from the ruling Democratic Party, called on Monday for funds and plans to deal with the risks, criticizing over-building of houses and quarries as well as deforestation in regions like the Veneto.

"We know that there are also human responsibilities lurking behind these great tragedies," Puppato said.

Investigators in Treviso, an area famed for producing Prosecco wine, will also look into whether techniques used by wine producers contributed to bringing about the conditions for Saturday's disaster.

"We will examine different aspects, including whether intensive cultivation at vineyards has played a role," local magistrate Laura Reale was quoted as saying by local news website La Tribuna di Treviso.

Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said funds to deal with environmental emergencies had previously got stuck in complex regional bureaucracy, but that recent legislation should smooth the process.

"You don't have to ask for a thousand permissions any more - this should mean the funds available can be spent better," Galletti said in a statement.

Coldiretti says 5 million people live or work in high-risk areas. At least 16 people were killed after Cyclone Cleopatra tore through the island of Sardinia last November.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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