By Emmanuelle Andreani
Naples, Italy - Many Naples residents sum up the region's recurring waste disposal nightmare in one word - the mafia - but organised crime is only part of the conundrum.
"The Camorra (mafia)... are active at every link in the chain, from collecting rubbish to storing it and treating it," says Massimiliano Marotta, a litigation lawyer who specialises in the issue.
The companies that manage rubbish collection and waste treatment centres in Naples and the surrounding Campania region are either infiltrated or directly controlled by the Camorra, Marotta said.
The Camorra are best known for drug trafficking, but experts say the highly lucrative clandestine trade in industrial waste is their second source of revenue, begun in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s.
Undercutting competitors and subverting safety procedures, the "ecomafia" ship industrial waste from the north and dump it illegally in and around Naples in a business that environmentalist Raffaele Del Giudice says enjoys an estimated turnover of €2,5-billion ($3,6-billion) a year.
"One quarter of the toxic and industrial waste produced in the north of Italy is trucked to the south through companies in the north with ties to the Camorra," said Del Giudice of the environmental group Legambiente.
When it arrives, it is often not sorted into solid and liquid waste before being compacted into so-called "ecoballs" - which are anything but eco-friendly.
"If the ecoballs were burned they would release dioxin and other toxic substances," said Franco Specchio, a former Campania regional counsellor.
"So no other region and no other country wants to burn them."
Instead, the compacted rubbish sits in the dumps and decomposes.
"Toxic, even radioactive substances seep into the soil, creating health risks," said geologist Giovanni de Medici.
A report in the British medical journal The Lancet Oncology in 2004 identified a "triangle of death" east of Naples where toxic waste has been linked to a higher incidence of cancer.
According to official figures, there are 400 000 tonnes of toxic "ecoballs" at landfills in the Naples region, and former special government commissioner Guido Bertolaso says a further half a million tonnes lie at illegal sites.
But while organised crime is central to a problem that most recently reached crisis proportions this month - with more than 110 000 tons of uncollected rubbish strewn through Campania's city streets because all the region's landfills are full to capacity - it is only part of a complex web of factors, experts say.
"This crisis is the result of a sad mixture of corruption, which is reaching new heights in Naples, a climate of impunity and the surprising apathy of civil society," Marotta said.
Francesco Iannello, like Marotta a member of the citizens' rights defence group Napoli Assise, said: "The extent of the mafia's control would be impossible without the passive or even active complicity of the authorities."
Taking it a step further, Donato Piglionica, a left-wing senator on a parliamentary committee investigating the issue, charges that even the office of the special commissioner appointed by Rome to resolve the problems has been infiltrated by the Camorra.
Under an emergency plan announced Tuesday by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, an incinerator that was to open early next year will open ahead of schedule.
There, too, the mafia will profit, Marotta said, noting that "under a hazardous interpretation of a European standard" Italy considers the fuel produced by burning ecoballs to be a renewable energy source and pays bonuses for it.
Decrying what he called a "surreal situation", Marotta said waste disposal companies are paid to produce the ecoballs, "which are actually ecological time bombs".
Iannello added: "The Camorra wins on all levels, and even has every interest in the crisis continuing, since it charges high fees for storage in the illegal dumps and for garbage collection."
Since 1994 when the government decreed Naples' waste disposal system an "emergency situation", several dumps infiltrated by the mafia have been closed and companies investigated.
"But the landfills reopened as if by magic, continuing to produce these ecoballs," former Campania regional counsellor Specchio said.
"And not a single company has been convicted." - Sapa-AFP