Gran Sasso National Laboratory, built under a mountain in Italy, is closing two of its big physics experiments because of environmental concerns.

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Trial set for Italian underground lab chiefs accused of endangering water supplies

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory, an underground physics lab in central Italy and one of the largest of its kind, is in trouble. Last week, several lab heads were ordered to stand trial on charges of endangering local water supplies, even as the lab prepares to shut down two of its biggest and most controversial experiments. The events come amid threats to close the motorway tunnel that connects the lab to the outside world.

The lab, run by Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Rome, is home to many experiments designed to study dark matter, neutrinos, and other rare phenomena. Its position 1400 meters under the Gran Sasso mountain chain shields experiments from the noise of cosmic rays that strike Earth. But the lab also sits in the middle of a large aquifer that supplies drinking water to several hundred thousand people and is vulnerable to pollution from chemicals used in the lab.

Last week, prosecutors in nearby Teramo announced that 10 people will stand trial in September, after being charged with failing to properly isolate the aquifer from sources of pollution. The indicted include three of the lab’s managers—INFN President Fernando Ferroni, lab director Stefano Ragazzi, and the lab’s head of environment Raffaele Adinolfi Falcone—as well as three directors of Strada dei Parchi, the company that runs the 10-kilometer-long motorway tunnel, and four from Ruzzo Reti, which operates an aqueduct that distributes drinking water from the aquifer.

Prosecutors launched their investigations following a complaint by Augusto De Sanctis, president of the nonprofit environmental group Abruzzo Ornithological Station in Pescara, Italy. He was prompted by a number of minor accidents within the lab in 2016, including the release of small amounts of an organic solvent that ended up in Teramo’s drinking water. But De Sanctis argues that two of Gran Sasso’s largest experiments pose a greater hazard. Borexino, which studies solar neutrinos, uses 1300 tons of the organic compound pseudocumene, and the Large Volume Detector (LVD), which also studies neutrinos, relies on 1000 tons of mineral spirits. De Sanctis says a 2006 law prohibits those substances being within 200 meters of drinking water sources, which he claims is the case at Gran Sasso.

Physicists reacted with dismay after charges were announced in September 2018. Nevertheless, INFN is preparing to remove the chemicals in question—having hired a company in November 2018 to organize the dismantling of Borexino and the LVD by the end of 2020.

Last month, however, Strada dei Parchi took matters into its own hands when it wrote to the transport ministry, INFN, and others saying it would close the motorway tunnel in order to avoid further legal actions against it—having been accused of failing to prevent traffic pollution from entering the aquifer. Tensions came to a head following a meeting last week in Teramo, where the company threatened to close the tunnel on 19 May—which could effectively have shuttered the lab. A transport ministry spokesperson says an agreement hammered out on 14 May will allow the tunnel to remain open for now.

The government has also announced it will appoint a commissioner to oversee the works needed to properly isolate the aquifer, including resealing lab floors and parts of the tunnel—which the Abruzzo regional authority estimates will cost about €170 million. De Sanctis reckons that’s a bad idea. After a 2002 chemical leak from the Borexino experiment, a commissioner was given €84 million to complete similar work. But he didn’t, De Sanctis says. “What’s needed is someone to coordinate the various bodies and get them to carry out their responsibilities,” he says.

Antonio Zoccoli, a scientist at the University of Bologna and a member of INFN’s executive committee, claims the institute has done nothing illegal in keeping Borexino and the LVD running. “We operate the lab respecting all of the regulations in force” he says. Given that the lab is surrounded by the aquifer, he argues that it is not clear exactly where the water source is. He also says no government authority ever told Gran Sasso that it was in violation of the 2006 law. But De Sanctis points out that isn’t true. In 2013, Italy’s National Institute of Health told the lab that it must carry out a “drastic reduction” in its activities.