venerdì, ottobre 21, 2005

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

The Messina Bridge as it will look from Sicily.

I have been looking recently for more information about the new Messina Bridge as the contract has just been awarded to the civil engineering firm, Impregilo SpA . As so often is the case here, nothing is quite as it seems, so this will be another rather long item. Sorry about that.

The bridge itself is relatively straightforward to describe. It will be the longest suspension bridge ever built, stretching from the shores of mainland Italy in Calabria north of
Reggio Calabria, across the straits of Messina to Sicily, landing just north of the city of Messina itself. Even more exciting will be the fact of it being built in a famously earthquake-prone area, pretty close to an active volcano. The main stated objective of the bridge is to enable better communication and trade links to Sicily – although the unspoken aims include the political binding of Sicily to Italy (or is it the other way around?) as well as giving our erstwhile leader the photo opportunities that the new bridge inaugaration / ribbon-cutting / sod-digging presents, all in good time for the election next year.

I really can’t avoid bringing in the mafia into the story at this stage either. Everyone knows of the Sicilian
mafia – more accurately called Cosa Nostra. We know, of course, because we were all brought up with the American “cops & robbers” films and TV series. However, the more real threat to law and order these days is from the Calabrian mafia, called ‘Ndrangheta, as evidenced by the murder of Francesco Fortugno whilst going to vote in the recent election poll. The bridge linking Sicily with the mainland is, of course, passing from ‘Ndrangheta territory into Cosa Nostra territory. An interesting, if somewhat frightening prospect for the future – I certainly wouldn’t want to be on the project team for Impregilo negotiating local contracts.

Although, having said that, perhaps Impregilo are a better choice than we might first suppose, depending on your viewpoint of course.

Impregilo are a huge company, claiming to employ around 25,000 people around the world at the moment. With an annual turnover of around €3 billion, they should be a very strong contributor to the project. But, they have been
having problems .

Due to a range of
problems, their position at the end of last December (2004) was that they were in debt to the tune of €1.162 billion. After some major restructuring of their debts and changing its senior management pretty radically, they had improved their financial position so that, in June of this year (2005) their debt had fallen to a “mere” €653.9 million. You’re impressed, aren’t you.

Now, back to thinking about how Impregilo are qualified to deal with the
‘Ndrangheta, Stidda and the Cosa Nostra. They certainly have experience of bribery and corruption. The contract that they undertook in Lesotho for the construction of a huge dam project was subject of an investigation into fraud and corruption that led to Impregilo facing five charges for bribery. Impregilo had been caught paying $750,000 into the Swiss bank account of Jacobus Michiel du Plooy, a businessman from the small Free State town of Ficksburg. Fortunately for du Plooy, he pleaded guilty and was fined $500,000 as well as having the bribe money sequestered. I say fortunate because the chap that du Plooy had paid, Masupha Ephraim Sole, the former boss of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, received a prison sentence of 15 years. A serious amount of prison time. Impregilo Failed to impress the British courts when they appealed the award made against them, even though they took their case to the House of Lords – a very expensive business for them.

That experience hasn’t stood them too well in projects they have been involved with in Italy recently though. Part of the reason given for their financial plight earlier this year was because of problems they experienced with the building of the refuse facilities near to Naples which was, for Impregilo at least, as big a disaster as a company can experience. It is still unresolved as I write. Of course, Impregilo didn’t have either ‘Ndrangheta, Stidda or Cosa Nostra to deal with on that project. It was the Camorra they obviously fell foul of.

Now, run by me one more time the story of how
Impregilo will manage the Messina bridge project again?

Bridge across Troubled Waters

Nun sacciu, nun vidi, nun ceru e si ceru durmiv