Italy’s Trash Problem a Burning Issue in the ‘Land of Fires’

ORTA DI ATELLA, Italy (CN) — The Romans called the green plains of Naples campania felix — the happy countryside. Today, though, it’s notoriously known as the Terra dei Fuochi — the Land of Fires — because of the noxious and criminal burning of trash and toxic waste that’s come to define this once-beautiful countryside of vineyards, orchards and gardens.

The environmental mess taking place here goes well beyond illegal trash fires. Criminal groups associated with Naples’ version of the Mafia — the camorra — ran lucrative operations in which they illegally buried toxic industrial waste.

Add to that a more general crisis of dealing with waste from the millions of people who live in and around Naples, Italy’s second most populous city. Add to that truckloads of trash illegally discarded by unscrupulous and black market businesses wanting to avoid landfill fees and detection by tax authorities.

Trash lies strewn along a street in Orta di Atella, Italy, outside Naples. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

The result: Trash festers on the sides of roads, along country lanes, in fields and abandoned buildings.

Government is complicit. Across this region, local authorities designated spots as temporary trash depots, but the trash is still there, rotting in place years later. Add to this poorly managed urban sprawl and another common problem in Italy: illegal construction, known as abusivismo, a word denoting abusive behavior. The result: More waste

Waste is one of Italy’s most glaring and alarming environmental problems, affecting small towns and cities alike up and down the peninsula even though the country has one of the highest rates of recycling in the world.

It’s here in the countryside of Campania where the seriousness of Italy’s waste problem is stunning and horribly plain to see. Campania has become emblematic of an Italy drowning in waste, exacerbated by what’s become known as the ecomafia — criminal groups that profit from environmental problems, including waste disposal.

“It’s an embarrassment for me,” said Raffaele De Rosa, a 54-year-old businessman in Gugliano, a town like many others that has been swallowed up by Naples.

Riding on a scooter, he led a Courthouse News reporter to an infamous site where trash from Naples was supposed to be temporarily stored between 1998 and 2005. Fifteen years later, mounds of trash remain on the site’s 320 acres. The garbage has been baled and sits covered, watched over by guards.

“They were supposed to get rid of it but they did not do anything,” he said with disgust.

“It’s huge — it’s immense,” he said, waving his hands at the enormous site. He accused criminal groups of profiting from the inaction over removing the trash from this spot, known as the Taverna del Re.

Worried about contamination leaching into the surrounding fields, he pointed to an adjacent field where tomatoes were growing under a hot summer sun.

“Look here — they’re growing fruit,” De Rosa said. “And this ends up on our tables. That’s the problem.”

Vincenzo Tosti, an environmental activist, gives a tour of a former composting facility near Orta di Atella that has turned into a dumping spot for trash, much of it coming from illegal businesses wanting to avoid landfill fees. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

The Italian government has made cleaning up the Terra dei Fuochi a priority, but progress is slow even though large sums are spent on remediation and enforcement.

In Orta di Atella (the Garden of Atella) lives Vincenzo Tosti, a 61-year-old man who leads campaigns to clean up the Terra dei Fuochi as part of a network called Stop Biocidio. His town too is being swallowed up by the growing metropolis of Naples.

“The anger never leaves you,” Tosti said as he led a reporter on a tour of the environmental mess afflicting his home town. This was not the first time he had done this tour, and it would not be the last. “We can’t just be indifferent to what’s happened.”

He led the way through what remained of a former complex built to make organic compost. The project was funded with European Union and Italian government funds, but it failed long ago due to corruption and local backlash to smells emitted from the site, he said. Even the compost made at the facility wasn’t fit to be sold, he said.

After the site was closed in 2009, criminals stripped it of its contents: machines, computers, air-conditioners, doors, steel roofing. Now it’s been turned into yet another dumping ground for waste and a place to burn trash. Criminals like to burn waste both to rid traces of where it comes from and to make room for more waste.

He pointed to heaps of fabrics from clothes-making factories, industrial textiles, construction material from illegal building sites.

“When we talk about the camorra and the Mafia, we’re talking about a system and this was part of it,” he said about the defunct facility.

For Tosti, the failure of the compost project illustrates a larger problem: The failure to manage the waste and recycle it, reuse it, reduce it. In other words, failure to create a sustainable cycle. He blamed the national and regional governments and Italy’s political parties for not doing nearly enough to clean up the garbage and contamination, stop the illegal bonfires of waste and push ahead with recycling.

“If you look at their declarations, they’re all environmentalists,” he said. “But when it comes to the facts, they don’t do a damn thing.”

He kept walking through the failed composting facility. “What we see here is the result of them not doing a damn thing,” he said with frustration. “It’s not like this came about today or yesterday or the day before yesterday: This is a situation that has been going on for a lot of years.”

Vincenzo Tosti at an illegal trash dump in Orta di Atella, Italy. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

On the edge of Orta di Atella, Tosti led the way around a spot where trash is dumped with impunity. Signs warn that people will be fined for dumping trash and there are even surveillance cameras set up to catch people. But none of that deters scofflaws from unloading their rubbish.

“This was where the last trash fire was set,” he said, pointing to a black spot on the ground.

Trash is dumped in full view of police surveillance cameras.

“These cameras, as you can see, are useless, even if they work,” he said. “It’s money wasted.”

He scanned the trash. There were the usual suspects: Textiles, industrial waste, furniture, appliances.

About a mile away amid farmers’ fields, Tosti pointed out another spot where trash was supposed to be temporarily stored during the “trash crisis” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Stockpiled trash is still there 14 years later, covered by a shell of dirt and concrete overgrown with grasses and shrubs.

“Look what great images this video camera takes,” he said sarcastically, pointing to another police surveillance camera. A tree’s branches covered the front of the camera. “They haven’t even noticed that a plant has grown up around it!”

The term Terra dei Fuochi was first used in 2003 in a report on the activities of the ecomafia by Legambiente, a national environmental group. Then Italian journalist Roberto Saviano turned the description into a national talking point — and embarrassment — with the publication of his book “Gomorrah” in 2006.

In the years that followed, Italy was shocked by a series of revelations from police investigations and repentant camorra members turned informants about the burial of toxic industrial waste in the plains of Campania and other environmental crimes.

Alarm bells rang out in Italy’s government as the public outcry grew. One protest in Naples drew about 120,000 people. Scientists too got into action and initial reports were alarming as they cited high levels of cancer, contaminated soils and groundwater and high levels of carcinogenic dioxins.

The revelations and public outcry led to dozens of arrests, prosecutions and convictions. The police work goes on, as do court cases. These were dark years for Campania indeed, as the Italian media ran articles about the environmental mess. One national news magazine, L’Espresso, ran a piece with a headline: “Drink the water in Naples and you die.” The region’s agricultural reputation was badly damaged and buyers scorned its products, such as its famous mozzarella di bufala cheese.

Now, with the benefit of a trove of research, scientists say those initial warnings were misplaced and that Campania’s contamination is far less severe than was once thought.

“The hypothesis at the moment is that it does not seem as bad as previously thought,” said Francesco Pirozzi, an environmental engineer at the University of Naples Federico II who works on the region’s problems.

As it turned out, ex-camorra informants were lying about or exaggerating the extent of the toxic burial, he said in a telephone interview. “There are lots of places where criminals said things were buried and they were not,” he said. They talked, he said, because “they might have needed to send messages” to other Mafiosi.

Initially, researchers likely were thrown off because they did not take into consideration the region’s natural abnormalities due to its location next to the Mount Vesuvius volcano, he said. It is so fertile here in no small part because there are so many volcanic minerals such as iron and magnesium in the soil and water that far exceed what are considered normal levels.

Pirozzi said cancer levels are actually lower in Campania than in richer Northern and Central Italy, where there is more industry. While it’s true that mortality rates are higher in Campania, he said that is likely due to other factors, such as higher poverty and people not doing medical screenings.

Vincenzo Marciano and Miriam Corongiu, husband and wife organic farmers near Naples, Italy, discuss the environmental problems facing their region and the need to restore its agricultural traditions. (Cain Burdeau photo/Courthouse News)

This is not to say there aren’t spots where toxic waste was buried. “There are some sites where some really alarming things happened,” Pirozzi said.

But Pirozzi said investigators have found so far that about 75 acres are contaminated at extremely high levels. He said that’s a very small area out of the 125,000 acres that make up the plain around Naples.

In one of the worst spots, a site known as Resit, excavations and research are attempting to figure out just what was buried and how best to deal with the toxic materials in the ground, he said.

Campania’s environmental woes can be traced back to a devastating earthquake in 1980 that caused extensive damage in the region.

After the earthquake, people were encouraged to abandon the older parts of Naples and the city quickly expanded into the outlying areas. At the same time, the camorra got involved in the rebuilding and spurred uncontrolled urbanization.

“An agricultural land was transformed into a suburb of Naples,” Pirozzi said. “This agricultural landscape was taken over and as farmers’ fields were abandoned, this brought about incivility.”

He said criminal gangs took over abandoned fields and one of the most fertile regions in Europe began to be covered in cement.

As the suburbs expanded wildly, so too did the region’s waste problems. To handle the growing waste emergency, the region in 1997 came up with a plan centered around burning trash in two massive incinerators after municipal waste was sorted at special facilities.

In the end, only one incinerator was built, behind schedule, and the development of trash-sorting facilities also fell behind schedule and short of goals. Because of the delays, trash piled up and the region declared a state of emergency as it drowned in mountains of garbage, and trash bonfires became part of everyday life.

Today the region relies on a massive incinerator that opened in 2009 in Acerra, a town outside Naples. Lines of truck feed it daily with trash.

Pirozzi said the incinerator works well and causes minimal pollution. The incinerator also produces electricity. “It is a beautiful plant. We need another one, in my opinion,” he said.

Building a second incinerator, though, has proven politically complicated because of stiff opposition. “If someone says they want to build an incinerator, they lose during elections,” Pirozzi said. He said claims that the incinerator is causing pollution and spreading dioxins over the countryside are false.

Antonio Rambaldi, a 72-year-old man tending a piece of land where he keeps gardens close to the giant incinerator, said he had no complaints about it.

“It’s not a nuisance,” he said. “No smoke, no noise, no smells. It works well.”

Still, Tosti and many others are opposed to the incinerator.

“We all rebelled because we knew that sending trash to an incinerator is not sustainable,” Tosti said. “We’re fed up that the entire management of waste centers around the use of the incinerator,” he said. “It’s clearly wrong.”

“We know what it produces and how it emits nanoparticles, dioxins,” he said and shook his head. “In a land where there’s already a problem — the Terra dei Fuochi — they gave us another problem by building an incinerator,” he said. “It wasn’t right to put a plant like this in a place that had already been raped.”

The region is, of course, trying to mount a comeback and reclaim its reputation as the campania felix.

Work is under way to turn Resit, the infamous site where an estimated 900,000 tons of waste were buried, into an urban park featuring artworks.

“It is a symbolic gesture,” said Massimo Fagnano, a professor of agronomy and ecology at the University of Naples Federico II. “We want to transform it from a symbol of degradation to a symbol of rebirth.”

He said the region needs to follow the example of Germany’s Ruhr, where a former industrial landscape has been transformed by trails, parks and ecological projects.

“We need to change the population’s perception of these places,” Fagnano said.

The possibility of the region becoming once again the campania felix of old — a hothouse of plants and life — is easy to envision at the house and in the gardens of Miriam Corongiu, a 47-year-old friend of Tosti and a fellow activist.

On the outskirts of Naples, not far from the rumble of highways and amid a maze of old narrow country roads slowly turning into city suburbs, she and her husband, Vincenzo Marciano, run a small organic farm where they grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables.

The couple threw themselves into growing things after Corongiu lost her job a couple of years ago; they now dedicate themselves to cultivating several acres Marciano inherited from his father. They tested the soils and water for contaminants and got a clean bill of health.

“It has always been extremely fertile,” Marciano said about Campania. “This was Rome’s winery.”

“Every type of agricultural product can be grown here — starting from the letter A to Z,” Corongiu said.

Birds chirped and it was peaceful amid the trees and flowers surrounding their home.

Despite all the abuse done to Campania, the couple said the vast majority of the farmland is not contaminated. Still, they worried about the future in an era of globalization and agribusiness.

“It’s a question of what we will be eating in 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years if we continue polluting the land in this way,” she said. “What counts now is the transformation of a product: How a tomato can be turned into sauce and how an apricot becomes jam. The big companies are interested only in low costs.”

She continued: “The pollution has come about from a system of development where the environment doesn’t matter in this economy.”

They grow a cornucopia: apricots, pomegranates, tomatoes, medlars, apples, carob, arbutus berries, figs, quinces, watermelons, pears, sunflowers, eggplants, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower.

Here, inside their garden, it feels that the city can be kept at bay and that the Terra dei Fuochi can return to being the bucolic land that once made it famous.

“The simplicity that was linked to this kind of life has been completely erased,” Corongiu said, hope in her words. “The rhythms of the seasons, we don’t even know what they are anymore.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)   

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