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COLUMN ONE

A crime most foul in Italy

Mobsters turned a province into a toxic dump, and residents tried to fight back. But the trash didn't vanish. Witnesses did.

August 30, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

SANTA MARIA CAPUA VETERE, ITALY — Raffaele del Giudice was a crusader. Squeezed into a sports jacket and a beat-up Fiat, he roamed the illegal trash dumps of southern Italy, covering his nose against the stench and exposing what he considers the ecological crime of the century.

Then people started being threatened. Ostracized. Killed. Del Giudice called off his crusade.

Because when you go up against trash here in Campania province, you are going up against a powerful, vicious mafia known as the Camorra. The Naples-based Camorra controls the import, transport and disposal of millions of tons of rubbish, an extremely lucrative business in which the group follows its own rules, ignores regulations on toxic waste and contaminates once-fertile farmland, country fields, forests and rivers.

Beyond the ugliness of it all, evidence now suggests that the garbage is poisoning the food chain and may be causing cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

Del Giudice calls it Italy's Chernobyl.

There are few more dramatic, and putrid, symbols of the mafia's persistent power in Italy and the government's -- some would say willful -- impotence in the face of it. It's almost a cliche: Tony Soprano, after all, was in "waste management."

For most of the last year, Campania suffocated under towering mountains of festering, uncollected garbage. Dumps, legal and illegal, were full to overflowing. Until cleanup crews finally made their move in July, seas of trash blocked roads and doorways and swallowed sidewalks and parks. The Camorra periodically paid Gypsy boys to set fire to portions of the waste, creating Dantesque scenes of a land ablaze, villages and towns filled with toxic smoke.

The blighted condition of southern Italy has earned sanctions from the European Union and condemnation from international health organizations. It ignited violent protests this year and contributed to the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi in the spring.

This is not a new problem. For more than 15 years, with the government spending more than $2 billion and appointing seven "trash czars," the problem hasn't gone away. It doesn't get fixed because the mafiosi , and politicians in their pocket, don't want it to be.

"For years the waste has been accumulating, nothing has been done to clean it up, and the consequences are lethal," said Donato Ceglie, the leading "eco-mafia" prosecutor in this region. "They have poisoned the land. They have poisoned the water. And it is getting worse. The trash is still arriving."

This is how the racket works. Hundreds of factories, industrial complexes and businesses of every sort in affluent northern Italy and in other parts of Europe contract with middlemen to have their waste removed. To reduce costs, these brokers turn to about 20 disposal firms in Campania, almost all of which, prosecutors say, are controlled by the Camorra.

The Camorra has enthusiastically made Italy's poor south the trash dump to the world, or at least part of the world. Trucks transport the waste to the south day and night, year-round, and deposit it in mostly illegal and unregulated landfills.

No trash is too foul: metallurgical dross, sludge from tanneries, tires, discarded refrigerators and stoves, rotting animal carcasses, medical waste -- a nauseating cesspool of crud.

Camorra operatives have gradually driven away farmers and taken control of more and more land, where they dump the stuff. But Campania is filling up.

And so the Camorra has gone global.

Enormous shipping containers that arrive from China with cheap toys and knockoff designer clothing unload and then take on trash, prosecutors say. In one sting operation two years ago, customs agents seized 9,000 tons of waste that had been smuggled onto cargo ships, half of it destined for China.

Of particular concern to environmentalists are the effects on food production and health. Toxic substances from the waste have seeped into groundwater, polluting the streams that cows and sheep drink from and the grass they forage. More poison is spewed into the air when trash is burned.

Campania is home to buffalo herds whose milk is used to make the best mozzarella cheese. Unacceptably high levels of the cancer-causing agent dioxin were detected this year in some mozzarella, threatening the half-a-billion-dollar export business of one of Italy's top signature products.

Scientists continue to study the link between the refuse and health, but already point to alarming trends, according to the World Health Organization, including a rate exceeding regional or national norms for cancers of the stomach, kidney, liver and lung, as well as congenital malformations. In some areas between Naples and the city of Caserta, residents are two to three times more likely to get liver cancer than those in the rest of the country, according to Italy's National Research Council.

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