The letter is unusual. Signed by a group of citizens of Casale Monferrato, in Piedmont, it is directed to the academic authorities of Yale University, a prestigious university in the United States. “We are deeply wounded,” he begins. He wonders how Yale could grant an honorary degree to an entrepreneur “who knowingly destroyed our local environment (…), knowingly caused the premature deaths of thousands of people from a rare asbestos-induced cancer, mesothelioma, in the seventies of the last century”.
The letter is signed by the Association of family members and victims of asbestos (Afeva) of Casale Monferrato and the businessman involved is the Swiss Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of Eternit, a multinational company specializing in the manufacture of asbestos-cement with factories in thirty-five countries including Italy: that of Casale Monferrato was the largest and oldest. In 1986 Schmidheiny closed it and bankrupted its Italian branch: but he did not spend a penny to clean up the site or compensate the victims of asbestos, the letter points out. Yet, in 1996 Yale accepted a donation from Schmidheiny, and awarded him an honorary degree “for his role in advancing global environmental stewardship.”
It is not the first time that Eternit victims have asked the US university to revoke that title and return his donations to Schmidheiny, so far in vain. “However, we learned that the university is reviewing its policy,” explains Assunta Prato, who is a member of the Association of Family Members and Asbestos Victims in Casale Monferrato.
The largest industrial disaster of the century
The letter is addressed to the general director of Yale, Susan Gibbon, the president of the university, Peter Salovey, and the internal committee for the review of donations. It bears the date of March 2022, it was delivered to Yale on October 5 by the US lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen, who in this matter represents the Casale Monferrato association free of charge. He has not yet received any sign of a response. As if to confirm that asbestos is one of the largest industrial disasters, full-blown, but passed over in silence of the century.
Let’s summarize. “Our city has thirty-five thousand inhabitants and for 80 years was the site of a large asbestos plant, which has so far caused the deaths of about three thousand workers and residents”, explains the letter addressed to Yale. Stephan Schmidheiny, the fourth generation of one of the most important Swiss industrial families, inherited Eternit and became its managing director in 1976.
At the time there was not much talk about the risks of asbestos, even though regulations to protect workers had become mandatory in the United States and the United Kingdom. Only in the 1980s did news on asbestosis and mesothelioma, a tumor of the pleura caused by the inhalation of microscopic asbestos fibers, begin to circulate in Italy as well.
Company managers were given a handbook on how to respond to workers, trade unionists, journalists, and minimize problems
Today we know that the owner of Eternit was aware of the risk of asbestos. The proof emerged much later, when the Turin prosecutor’s office indicted him for intentional environmental disaster; the family members of about three thousand people who worked or lived at the Eternit plants in Casale Monferrato, Rubiera (in Emilia-Romagna) and Bagnoli, in Campania were admitted as injured parties to the trial, which began in 2009.
In court, documents were presented from a meeting between the managers of Eternit’s European subsidiaries, chaired by Schmidheiny in June 1976, in Germany. Schmidheiny explained that asbestos-cement was potentially dangerous, and talked about how to address asbestos concerns. Many of those managers were then learning what mesothelioma was and that asbestosis was considered an occupational disease. Schmidheiny commented that there was no need to panic: “Our managers were shocked. The same shouldn’t happen to workers.” So he had company executives distribute a handbook on how to deal with workers, trade unionists, journalists, with a series of answers formulated in a way to minimize problems.
So the company knew what risk it was exposing its employees to: but production continued for another ten years. “If countermeasures had been taken then, many lives could have been saved”, comments Assunta Prato bitterly: “Perhaps not that of my husband, who died in 1996 at the age of less than fifty, but certainly many others”. Indeed, asbestos represents a slow danger; between when the microscopic fibers are inhaled and lodged in the lungs, until the disease manifests itself, it can take twenty or thirty years.
The fact is that Stephan Schmidheiny was concerned with managing corporate communication, but not with the risk for the workers and inhabitants around his factories. During the trial, a court expert testified that the situation in the Casale Monferrato plant was “catastrophic”. The whitish powder of asbestos was everywhere, generations of workers and citizens breathed it: but this is now widely documented.
“A prestigious university has helped an asbestos billionaire make a new image”
In 2012 Stephan Schmidheiny was sentenced in the first instance by the court of Turin to 16 years’ imprisonment for “permanent intentional environmental disaster” and “voluntary omission of accident prevention precautions”. The sentence was upheld on appeal, increased to 18 years. The court had also ordered reparations, which were never paid. In 2014 the cassation confirmed the guilt but had to acquit the defendant, because the environmental crime had lapsed. This caused a sensation; the injustice seemed evident. But then silence returned to the Eternit case.
The letter to Yale’s academic authorities recalls these circumstances, and also how in 1984 the company hired a Milanese public relations firm to ensure that its owner’s name remained protected. “Schmidheiny has invested to rebuild his image as a green entrepreneur. But he didn’t invest a cent to repair the disaster on which his family also built a fortune ”, comments Assunta Prato.
In fact, since the late 1980s Stephan Schmidheiny has been funding nature conservation groups in Brazil. He has written a book on responsible resource management. He founded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a world forum of entrepreneurs “for sustainable development”, and in 1992 he participated in the Earth Summit organized by the United Nations in Rio de Janeiro. William Reilly, former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, introduced him as an entrepreneur of the future. It was Reilly who proposed him for an honorary degree at Yale University, to which Schmidheiny made generous donations in 1996 and 1997 (but it is not known how much they amount to: the university’s own press releases define them as “generous”).
The first letter from the Casale Monferrato Families Association to Yale dates back to 2013, after the appeal sentence which confirmed Schmidheiny’s sentence: they asked to “reconsider” the honor given to “a criminal who for the mere logic of profit has for decades caused very serious damage” to thousands of people. The request was supported by about fifty former students of the university, almost all graduates of the class of 1964.
“A prestigious university helped an asbestos billionaire restore his image when he knew that the Italian justice system that would soon come to indict him,” comments Barry Castleman, public health expert and witness at the Turin trial which concludes with the condemnation of Schmidheiny.
“Contempt for the Italian courts”
So far Yale has refused to discuss the title attributed to Schmidheiny, explaining that an honorary title has never been revoked: which has not been truer since in 2019 it removed the title granted to actor and TV host Bill Cosby, convicted of sexual harassment. The academic directorate also argues that the judicial proceeding in Italy “does not meet the standards of due process”, because it took place in absentia. In fact, the Swiss entrepreneur never showed up in the courtroom: but it was his choice, he preferred to be represented by a large defense team. According to Castleman, Yale thus showed its “contempt for the Italian courts”.
But now Yale itself is under pressure. Last year a well-known professor announced her resignation after a major donor tried to influence her teaching. This caused a scandal and prompted the US university to formulate a new policy on donations, which will be returned if a “dishonorable intent” is recognized. The Schmidheiny case, Castleman observes, “is a first test of this new policy”.
Meanwhile, the Eternit affair is not over. In 2018 Stephan Schmidheiny was indicted in Italy on the new charge of “voluntary homicide” of workers and citizens residing around his factories. The “Eternit-bis” chapter is divided into four processes, by territorial jurisdiction. The first conviction came in 2019 in Turin; the second in Naples for a worker killed by asbestos in Bagnoli.
However, the most substantial proceeding is the one underway in Novara for the death of 392 people in Casale Monferrato, sixty-two workers and three hundred and thirty residents. It is here that between October and November the defense experts tried to dismantle the prosecution’s theses on the causes of the deaths of those workers and citizens.
“For us it is a real suffering to hear that the doctors in Casale exaggerated with the diagnoses and that one cannot say whether it was mesothelioma or something else”, says Assunta Prato, who went to testify again: her husband is among those 392 cases . “It’s an unequal fight. A billionaire entrepreneur pays excellent lawyers and experts willing to deny what has so far been ascertained by many scientists. He can pay media agencies to steer the media in his favor. We know that those statements are refutable, but in the meantime they instill doubt in the juries ”.
The Eternit-bis trial is nearing its conclusion, the prosecution and defense statements are expected in the first months of 2023. Once again, the defendant has announced that he will not be in the courtroom. “Yale sold Schmidheiny a comfortable escape from responsibilities to the people of Casale Monferrato and other devastated communities,” the letter from the victims’ families concludes. Once again many former students of the university have added their voice: “Is this what we want to celebrate as exemplary management of the environment?”, they ask in a new letter to the university. “Yale should return Schmidheiny’s donations and revoke his degree” and “it should do it now, not waiting for public scandal to make the decision inevitable.”