The graveyard of toxic waste in Naples


Bolsas de basura tiradas en Nápoles (Anna Monaco/AFP/Getty Images)

Rubbish in Naples (Anna Monaco/AFP/Getty Images)

Tiziana Trotta

Local mafias illegally control and handle disposal of waste in the region of Campania. Tons of hazardous waste are concentrated into makeshift landfills or burned in bonfires. Brussels has already made itself clear – but what is the Italian State doing about it?

Father Maurizio Patriciello doesn’t even have time to get out of his car. As he approaches the main entrance of the church of Caivano, north of Naples, two activists bang on the car window with their knuckles. The scene is repeated again and again; always the same. Every day Patriciello receives reports of the discovery of new improvised landfills or uncontrolled bonfires of all kinds of waste.

Since the 90s, local mafias in this region have illegally handled about ten million tons of hazardous waste mainly from northern Italy, concealing special waste underground or camouflaging it among ordinary waste. In recent years the burial of hazardous substances has been reduced significantly, however the problem has shifted to solid urban waste which – mixed with illegal waste that the small local industries don’t want to dispose of by legal methods – ends up on the side of paths where young lads take on the job of setting fire to it in exchange for a few euros.

One year after the Law on the so-called Land of Fires came into force there has still not been any significant progress, according to the organizations for the defence of the environment and local activists. “There is far too much backlog, a lack of sanitation projects, and epidemiological figures which are still alarming,” complains the Legambiente association in a report published in February.

The results of analyses run on 51 sites qualified as “high risk” by the Government have still not been disclosed, although publication was scheduled for last June. “A total of 1,335 potentially contaminated sites have still not been analysed,” warns the report, which defines the sanitation procedure as an absolute “pipe-dream.” The group in defence of the region also highlights the danger of companies controlled by mafias profiting from contracts to clean up the area.

When Mauro Pagnano, activist for the Coordination of Fires Committees, is asked what he does in life, his response is: “meetings.” He drives along a country road at the end of which Vesuvius can be glimpsed. Suddenly he turns left. His car makes its way down a narrow dirt track, flanked on both sides by mounds of refuse, only a few metres away from crops. He knows off by heart all the points where piles of debris accumulate and, every day, with his camera over his shoulder, he goes off to look for new improvised landfills, programming strategies for action with other volunteers. With difficulty, he covers his nose and mouth with the collar of his jacket. “What’s the point, if toxic particles are everywhere?” he concludes, while he walks between asbestos panels, junk, old furniture, car doors, rusty appliances and sacks full of scraps of fabric, bricks and broken tiles.

“Refuse emergencies” have become so frequent in Campania that they have reached the point of actually distorting the etymological meaning of the word. In 2008, the then prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, allowed himself to be photographed with his best smile on the clean streets of downtown Naples, claiming to have solved the problem. His remedy was to militarize the region without this really meaning a drastic reduction of uncontrolled burning; and to increase the number of incinerators and landfills.

Brussels has also taken an interest in the problem of waste which is running riot over the area. The last court ruling on the Italian State came in November, when the European Court of Justice ruled that the Italian government was guilty of failing to properly run the waste cycle in Campania, depriving it of aid to the value of €18 million.

The Mafia and companies: a relationship of mutual benefit

“There is a system of economic and social forces that is profiting from this situation,” says Antonio Polichetti, author of the essay, Quo Vadis, Italia?, while he stirs his coffee agitatedly in a bar in chaotic downtown Naples. “That’s why it will never be resolved,” he adds.

“The logic of refuse follows only private interest: that of companies who need to dispose of waste at a low price; the consortia who clean the streets; companies working in waste treatment; the Camorra; and corrupt civil servants who turn a blind eye, etc.,” states Polichetti. “With the ongoing crises, the regulations are ignored and all power is concentrated in the hands of people who have no interest in stopping the machinery, nor are they accountable for their actions,” he explains.

The existence of this crooked economic cycle is not new to the Italian state, as evidenced by the parliamentary investigations of the late 90s and numerous court reports. “Twenty years from now, all the inhabitants of the region will be in danger of dying,” said the former treasurer of the Camorra in 1997, Carmine Schiavone, before the magistrates. Although this collaborator with the legal authorities revealed the main locations where toxic waste was being dumped, the Italian state is still far from finding a solution to the problem, and each year the Ecomafia increases its turnover. The latest report from Legambiente on environmental crime notes that in 2013 this sector earned around €3.1bn from handling hazardous waste and around €700m from urban waste. Campania is at the forefront of the ranking for these offences, with irregularities affecting all phases of the waste cycle, thanks to the connivance of mafias, businesses and local governments. Factories can falsify the amount or type of waste to be treated so that hazardous materials are treated as ordinary, and disappear or are left in the hands of companies offering laughable prices to treat it.

Legambiente hopes that the new law on environmental crimes, passed in early March by the Senate, will mark a step forward in combatting this phenomenon by introducing into the Criminal Code four new types of offences, doubling the limitation period for the offences punishable by imprisonment of up to 15 years.

The threat to health

Illegal waste management, besides being the most profitable sector for the ecomafias, is also the most dangerous to health. Although it is difficult to establish exclusive links between environmental pollution and the cause of disease, in May the Institute of Healthcare in Rome revealed a worrying increase in tumours among inhabitants of this area with somewhat fuzzy borders, where at least 500,000 people live. The increase in mortality compared to the rest of the region is 13% and the alarm has been triggered particularly in children, where the rate of hospitalization for tumours in the first year of life is between 51% and 68% higher than the regional average.

In 2014, the Italian government earmarked €100m for free medical examinations for the local population. According to official data, only one out of every ten inhabitants actually went for the check-up. The locals, however, deny ever having been given any information. “Without all this mobilization of activists, I would still be wondering why my daughter died,” says Tina Zaccaria, a member of the association Us, Everybody’s Parents, which brings together those who have lost their own children through contamination-related diseases .

A contested percentage

The Italian State argues that the contaminated areas are less than 21.5 square kilometres (about 2% of the suspect area), although several experts have raised criticisms of the methodology used to assess the problem.

“The key issue in this matter is not to create alarm,” replies Maurizio Patriciello. Sitting on a bench in his church, he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. He is tired; tired of receiving daily reports of new cases of tumours and of saying goodbye to parishioners in white coffins. “There will come a day when the media will turn off the spotlight. “That will be a very sad day,” he laments. In order to delay that day as far as possible, Don Patriciello has allowed his voice to be heard as far as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to request that the Italian government be judged responsible for the deaths linked to contamination.

And what will happen on 31 December 2019, the deadline imposed by Brussels for closure of the landfills? “We’ll either be flooded by refuse or we’ll continue to send waste abroad, until other countries get fed up with the situation,” repeated Polichetti, the author of Quo Vadis, Italia? “More and more money that comes out of our pockets and that we pay in massive cuts on social services, health, education and privatization.”

Tiziana Trotta is an Italian journalist.

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