Criminal waste

February 29, 2008

By Guy Dinmore

Published: February 29 2008

Behind the rotting caravans and shacks of Camp Number One, where gypsy children are walking barefoot in the mud and two Africans are haggling over used cars, a potent column of acrid ink-black smoke rises into the sky.

The flat countryside of Giugliano, north of Naples, is otherwise punctuated by old soil-covered garbage dumps resembling giant molehills and pyramids of stacked, plastic-clad bales of rubbish – known as eco-balls – still awaiting disposal. The squalor of the council-run camp – home to gypsies who fled the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia – is matched by more than 100 garbage trucks lined up nearby outside a vast processing plant.

The plant is supposed to separate waste and turn it into eco-balls to be burnt in electricity-producing incinerators. But some of the trucks have been waiting for more than a day to unload their stinking cargoes.

As Raffaele Del Giudice, head of the environmental lobby group Legambiente, explains, this small corner of Italy sums up everything that went wrong in the run-up to the latest garbage crisis to hit Naples. “The eco-mafia just keep on going,’’ says Del Giudice, describing how the Camorra, as the Naples mafia is known, brings rubbish from all over Italy to be dumped illegally and on the cheap in the region of Campania.

Paid accomplices sometimes torch tyres on top of the waste to hide its origins and prevent analysis of its toxicity. Del Giudice is furious at what he calls the silent pact of industries in the more regulated north of Italy to dump in the south, where the rule of law is fragile.

“Italy doesn’t have the death penalty, but here everyone is condemned to die,” says one of the truck drivers, gesturing to a field of wilting vegetables. A Lancet Oncology report in 2004 linked the toxic dumps to high mortality and cancer rates. A more detailed study backed by the government’s civil defence department in 2006 found “significantly increased” rates of congenital malformation and cancer in parts of Naples and nearby Caserta.

Waste comes from metal and chemical industries, tanning factories, treatment facilities and dairy farms, much of it mixed to be spread as “fertiliser” on fields. Sometimes whole trucks are sent into the pits, their drivers fearful of unloading their contaminated cargo.

The centre-left government led by Romano Prodi was spurred into action in early January when mountains of uncollected rubbish began to pile up in Naples and beyond, and angry residents fought back riot police trying to reopen old dumps. The army was sent in, but its mandate was restricted to clearing the streets of rubbish.

This latest chapter in a saga that has erupted periodically over decades was triggered when the region’s last main dumps (including those at Giugliano) reached capacity. Two incinerators ordered by the government years ago have not been completed and are below standard. Processing plants are operating but, officials say, doing so badly. A majority of small-town mayors failed to implement rubbish separation at collection.

Last month the courts started pre-trial hearings of Antonio Bassolino, Campania’s leftwing governor, and 27 others, including local government and company officials under investigation for fraud and abuse of office related to rubbish disposal. They deny wrongdoing.

“So the people are rebelling,” says Del Giudice, explaining why the local population is refusing to allow new dumps to be opened and is opposing incinerators, believing they will spew toxic pollution from ill-processed rubbish. “This is the real emergency. People do not trust anyone.” Equally culpable, he says, is central government, which in 1994 took authority from the localities by appointing a special garbage commissioner.

The latest garbage “tsar”, appointed last month and given 120 days to resolve the mess, is Gianni De Gennaro, who locked up a lot of mafiosi in his previous career as national police chief. De Gennaro agrees he must convince people that rubbish can be transformed into something useful and safe. Meanwhile he is transporting some 600 tonnes of eco-balls a day to Germany to be incinerated in its more efficient plants, and trying to reopen more tips in Campania. Central Naples is clear of trash, but the suburbs are still half-buried.

Asked how the Camorra can still carry on their disposal schemes, De Gennaro says that chasing criminals is not part of his mandate. But then, with the pugnacity of a boxer, he fixes me with his gaze. “I can assure you that there is the strongest maximum commitment from the authorities to stop the criminals … the prosecutors are following my work with great attention.”

The next day, police in Naples arrest one of Italy’s 30 most-wanted men, Vincenzo Licciardi, an alleged Camorra leader in the run-down Secondigliano district of Naples – which is strangely free of garbage.

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