Italy: Naples Still Trash City

For the rats, the noon bells spark a feeding frenzy. As the sound rings out from hundreds of Naples's churches it energizes the rodents scurrying frantically through the six-foot-high piles of rotting garbage festering in the streets because of a garbage strike now entering its fourth week. Stray dogs sometimes join in the feast, picking through the trash and drinking from puddles speckled with cockroach shells.

If these Neapolitan trash troubles sound familiar, it's no wonder. The Italian region of Campania has been experiencing a garbage crisis for almost 14 years, during which time little has changed beyond the contents of the overflowing bins. Indeed, it's become so routine that there's now a predictable pattern. First, the Camorra—the local mafia, which controls the city's garbage industry—stuffs the area's dumps and incineration facilities with garbage imported from northern Italy and other European countries. That leaves nowhere to put the local garbage, forcing collectors to let it pile up on the streets. Next, angry residents burn the garbage, spewing dioxins into the air. Eventually the government squeezes space out of existing dumps to alleviate the problem temporarily.

The last major crisis was in May, when an abandoned dump was eventually reopened and more money was allocated to solve "the problem." But the emergency funds sent from Rome, over 1.8 billion euros in the last decade, have had little more than a band-aid effect. Recent reports even claim that 20 percent of all emergency payments go directly to salaries of the commissioners who failed to stop the problem in the first place.

But this time, somehow, the garbage crisis is different. The Neapolitans and the European Union are putting combined pressure on the Italian government to finally clean up the trash. The European Union's environment commission in Brussels has threatened to impose financial sanctions, heavy fines and other penalties if the problem isn't solved. Barbara Helfferich, spokeswoman for the European Commission on the environment, says the commission is examining what options it has to force Italy to comply with environmental standards. "Obviously, we are very concerned about the situation," she told NEWSWEEK. "If not enough changes soon to alleviate the situation, we will consider going to court."

The European Union's tougher line finally signals a departure from its earlier, more laissez-faire attitude. Back in 1994 the EU first decreed a "waste disposal state of emergency" in the Campania region around Naples, forcing Rome to send money to the impoverished area. The EU has automatically renewed the state of emergency every year since, but it did not insist that Rome take any further measures to solve the problem until last June, when it opened an infringement case against Italy for its failure in the basic protection of human health and the environment in Campania. The measure was the first step toward expanded sanctions, and the EU commission will decide by the end of January whether to proceed by filing a lawsuit against Italy in the European Court of Justice. "Italy needs to redouble its efforts rather than just talking about solving the problem," says EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimos. "The Italian authorities must act now or face the consequences."

While it may take years for the infringement case to reach the sanctions level, the threat from Brussels has made an impact in Rome. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, himself a former European Commission president, deployed several units of the Italian Army last week to clear the trash from around the region's schools so that they could open after the holiday break. He also gave a former national police chief, Gianni De Gennaro, four months to sort out the problem and urged other Italian regions to take Neapolitan garbage. Sardinia took the first boatloads, receiving 100,000 tons of waste, but local residents have been protesting the move by torching cars and setting fires. Germany also volunteered to dispose of 30,000 tons of waste over the next six months, which will be shipped to and processed in Bremerhaven, and Switzerland is considering importing some of the trash too. Prodi also plans to expedite the completion of an incinerator currently under construction, to build three new incinerators in existing dumps and establish four new dumps. These measures, however, could take years to complete.

Meanwhile, local residents are protesting against Prodi's plans to reopen an old dump at Pianura, on the outskirts of Naples. The site, in the suburb of Pozzuoli, is tucked between the World Wildlife Fund's Astroni Crater reserve and development property for a luxury golf resort. It was closed 12 years ago at the EU's urging after health officials found high levels of toxic substances in the air and water and above-average death and cancer rates for those living in the area. In 2004, when authorities tried to reopen the site, the British medical journal Lancet issued a health report calling the area a "triangle of death." The government then deemed the site unusable and covered the dump with a picturesque hill, under which few people venture to guess what is actually buried. So sure were residents that this toxic landfill would never be reopened that many locals have invested millions of euros over the last three years in a development plan to build luxury hotels and an 18-hole golf course next to the covered fill.

The Pianura protesters have stopped the police from accessing the landfill by using everything from tree stumps and Molotov cocktails to fend them off. At one point protesters commandeered four city buses and torched them on the streets nearby. Days later protesters hung dummies representing Prodi, Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino and the region's president, Antonio Bassolino, from lampposts. A local priest, Father Giuseppe Cipolletta, set up a plastic altar and served Sunday mass to the protesters so they wouldn't have to leave their posts. "You won't solve the problem by reopening another dump," he preached during this sermon. "It will just fill up, so what's the solution?" Last week police finally gave up and moved aside to allow the angry citizens to occupy the former dump.

In fact, opening more dumps just creates more opportunities for what Italy's environment minister, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, calls the "eco-mafia." Scanio believes that the real solution is for the EU instead to offer grants and subsidies to build recycling plants and high-tech disposal facilities. "The eco-mafias are behind the fires that are burning Naples and that are set to burn the accumulated trash," he said. "In the chaos that is created, the Camorra is always the victor."

For Italy's political elite, the concerns are not the view from Naples but how the rest of the continent perceives the nation. "The government cannot tolerate that the problem remains unsolved," Prodi said during a weekend visit to Malta. "This emergency is a shame for the whole of Italy." But for the Neapolitans, who still can't even take out their Christmas holiday trash, a bad image is the least of their problems.