Industrialist Raul Gardini is best known in Italy for his highly publicized stake in Enimont SpA, a joint public-private venture that ranks among the largest chemical companies in the world.

While his power struggle with the Italian government has been making headlines in Italy almost daily, Mr. Gardini inadvertently has been caught up in another dispute, this time over one of his shipping concerns.A fire on board a petrochemical ship owned by a subsidiary of Ferruzzi Finanziaria SpA, which Mr. Gardini also heads, has been burning out of control for nearly a month off the southern Italian coast of Brindisi.

Environmentalists, led by the Rome-based Lega per L'Ambiente (League for the Environment), charge that current efforts to put out the blaze by sinking the vessel could damage the Adriatic Sea's delicate ecosystem.

They say scuttling the ship also would make it impossible to ever determine what caused the fire in the first place.

To prevent that from happening, the environmental group filed a judicial appeal to block the operation and put the ship under court jurisdiction. The group also plans a sit-in tonight at the Port of Brindisi to make sure its message gets across.

Mr. Gardini's struggle with the government over the chemical company pitted two giants against each other. The skirmish over the burning vessel is more like the fight between David and Goliath, with environmentalists dwarfed by the strength of the Italian government and big business.

The incident began on April 28, when the Val Rosandra, owned by the Ferchim Ravenna subsidiary of Ferruzzi, caught fire while it was docked at the Port of Brindisi. Investigators still have not determined the cause of the blaze, which was sparked as crews prepared to empty five tanks of highly flammable propylene into a dockside petrochemical reservoir.

After the flames began to spread, tug boats quickly moved the 3,000-ton vessel about six miles off the coast, where fire crews tried in vain to put out the blaze. For nearly three weeks, salvage workers doused the ship with water, keeping a distance of about 300 yards for fear the ship might explode.

When all attempts at salvaging the ship failed, officials with Italy's Merchant MarineMinistry called together representatives from Ferchim and the Brindisi Port Authority along with technical experts and environmentalists, to figure out what to do next.

According to Cmdr. Mauro Tattoli, the top official at the Brindisi Port Authority, a consensus was reached at the meeting that had the full approval of environmentalists. If there was agreement then, it didn't last.

The decision was a two-phase operation, Cmdr. Tattoli said.

In the first phase, which began Monday, the ship was towed 31 miles off the coast, and the five tanks on board were blown up to allow all 1,800 tons of propylene to burn. Estimates are that it could take anywhere from four to seven days before the fire burns itself out.

When the fire finally is extinguished, plans call for the salvage crew to go on board and set off a second, more powerful round of explosives to blow up and sink the ship.

Cmdr. Tattoli claims the process is environmentally safe because the propylene will burn into the atmosphere before the ship sinks to the sea bottom.

"Everyone agreed that this was the only solution," Cmdr. Tattoli said. ''We chose this solution because it will allow us to burn all the propylene and therefore not do any harm to the environment."

Teodoro Marinazzo, a national representative of the League for the Environment, disagrees and says his group never approved of the decision in the first place. In a communique issued last week, the environmental group stated that the decision to sink the ship "could make only (Mr.) Gardini happy."

Guido Negro, a spokesman for the Ferruzzi Group that Mr. Gardini chairs, said his company simply followed orders handed down by the port authority. ''Ferchim has nothing to declare because we did not make any decision. We're simply abiding by the decision that the public authorities adopted," Mr. Negro said.

Mr. Marinazzo alleges that his group's own investigation reveals that the situation on board the ship reached such a critical stage because several safety regulations were ignored and potentially lethal mistakes were made.

"If the appropriate steps had been taken to put out the fire initially, we wouldn't be in this situation. Only after the ship had been burning for 15 days did they (port authorities) come to us and say it was in danger of exploding," he said.

The league has urged the government to investigate not only the cause of the fire, but the condition of the ship, and the safety of the load it was carrying. These questions will be far easier to answer if the ship is not sunk, Mr. Marinazzo said.

Cmdr. Tattoli retorts that salvage crews had the situation under control

from the outset. He also defends the port's safety record.

"More than 300 ships of this kind arrive here every year, and nothing like this has ever happened," he said.