The view from Mount Vesuvius is one of Italy's finest. The Bay of Naples shimmers beyond lush olive groves and vineyards that cascade down the mountain's flanks. The ruins of ancient Pompeii remind tourists and locals alike of the volcano's dangerous past. And those who venture near are indeed in danger. These days, it's not an eruption that threatens--but a man-made environmental disaster.
The whole Campania, as the picturesque hinterlands of Naples are known, has become a toxic-waste dump--and the mafia is to blame. A full third of Italy's refuse is disposed of illegally; much of it ends up here, thanks to "eco-mobsters" who have turned legitimate waste management into a lucrative criminal enterprise. Indeed, they're hauling in so much trash from elsewhere that there's little room left in the landfills for the garbage now piling up on city streets. Some toxins, even those supposedly too lethal to dump, fuel bonfires that illuminate nights on Vesuvius. Health professionals have dubbed the region the "Triangle of Death." A recent study by the Italian Health Ministry in the medical journal Lancet reports that its people are twice as likely as the average Italian to get leukemia and other forms of cancer. "People don't realize they are being poisoned," says researcher Alfredo Mazza. "The authorities have not wanted them to know."
Environmental groups estimate the ecomafia has made 132 billion euros from toxic-waste dumping over the past decade--some 13 percent of its income, according to Pierluigi Vigna, who leads the Nation-al Mafia Commission. Waste-management firms under mafia control underbid legitimate companies by as much as 90 percent to win lucrative contracts from all over Italy, he adds; they specialize in the disposal of particularly toxic waste like medical refuse and used chemicals. Once in Campania, they forge counterfeit toxicity ratings for the stuff, then dump it as if it were ordinary household garbage, either in legitimate dumps or in makeshift landfills. "The mafia has moved from violence to business," says Vigna. "It is much harder for us to stop this new kind of organized crime."
Harmful as this may be to humans, it's also damaging the environment. Buried toxins seeping into groundwater are polluting livestock, posing additional threats to meat and dairy consumers. Last year, the mob even sold some of its trash as fertilizer to unwitting farmers who spread the waste on their fields. Nearly 10,000 animals were destroyed after buried landfill waste was discovered in their grazing fields. Milk contaminants found in random testing of local mozzarella cheese (which had already been sold in stores) tipped off investigators.
With so much business elsewhere, many of the mafia-fronted trash collectors have begun to ignore traditional garbage collection. Refuse is thus left to rot on the streets for weeks at a time. Last March, 13 school districts canceled school after local mayors deemed the fermenting trash in the streets too risky for schoolchildren to safely pass by. Throughout the summer and into the fall, residents took matters into their own hands and burned full Dumpsters of rotting garbage just to get rid of it. And when the mafia does collect regular trash, according to Italy's environmental agency, Legambiente, it all too often stashes it under bridges, along roadsides and, of course, on the mountain.
Late last summer the European Commission issued a warning to Italy, naming 28 separate breaches of environmental-waste-management laws. Some 5,000 known illegal and uncontrolled landfills in the south were targeted for immediate attention. But so far, the government's strategy has been to build more landfills and incinerator centers, such as the mammoth complex under construction near the town of Acerra (population: 46,000) in the heart of the Triangle of Death. Acerra's Mayor Espedito Marletta has asked the government to stop the project; residents have taken to blocking major highways and rail lines in an attempt to halt the garbage flow. But Paolo Russo, a parliamentary member of the ruling coalition under Silvio Berlusconi and head of the commission on waste trafficking, suggests there are few other options. "The waste arrives by road every day. It doesn't fall out of the sky."
Officials say that even with new incinerators and dumps, it could take an estimated eight years to burn all the garbage that's collected around the region--not counting the new refuse that's dumped daily. For those living in the shadow of Vesuvius, the only real hope may be that the volcano will strike first.