Page last updated at 10:29 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 11:29 UK

Naples: A city swimming in filth

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Naples

Beneath the mountains of festering waste, Naples is a city descending into chaos.

Rubbish on the streets of Naples
Naples' rubbish crisis is a serious health threat

Officially there is an estimated 50,000 tonnes of uncollected rubbish in the Campania region, 5,000 tonnes of it on the city's streets.

But drive around and it soon becomes obvious that this is an extremely conservative estimate.

Wherever you go outside the city centre there are enormous piles of rubbish rotting in the sun.

The smell gets so bad it is often just burned - and as the temperatures soar so do the frustrations of the beleaguered Neapolitans.

For Campania, with a population of some six million people, there is, today, according to the council, just one viable dump.

The three incinerators they are building as part of the solution are all hopelessly behind schedule.

As we clear the backlog the rats come spilling out of the bags. Some of them are bigger than my forearm
Domenico Montella
Rubbish collection supervisor

One, in Acera, is still at least five months from completion, and has recently run out of money.

The 70m euros (55m) needed to finish the job has been frozen as part of an investigation into corruption involving the regional governor, Antonio Bassolino, and 27 others.

The allegations include fraud, abuse of power and breach of trust in environmental matters. The governor denies any wrongdoing.

'Iron fist'

Environment Minister Stefania Prestigiacomo told the press last week the incinerator at Acera would soon be completed.

"It is already 90% finished," she said. But no-one is yet sure when the work will restart.

Quarry in Chiaiano, Naples - possible new rubbish dump site
Sites like this quarry in Chiaiano have been touted as new rubbish dumps

"Normally there are 400 men on this site. Now there are just 15 of us," said chief engineer Giuseppe Storace, who has also been named in the inquiry but denies wrongdoing.

"The construction has stopped, we have to wait for the money... and given the scale of the crisis it is all rather frustrating," he admitted.

Last week the new prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, visited Naples promising to solve the problem with an "iron fist". He has reclassified areas of the city containing rubbish dumps as "areas of national strategic interest".

"That means they are now military zones," he said. Anyone who blocks access to these sites could be jailed for up to five years.

One of them is a disused quarry in Chiaiano with an estimated capacity for some 700,000 tonnes of rubbish.

But over the weekend site inspectors were turned away by the angry local residents. Twelve of the protesters were injured in clashes with police - three were arrested.

The inspectors have finally been in to assess the site - but the protests are by no means over.

Mafia involvement

Walter Ganapini, the council's regional environmental officer, blames the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the mafia.

"We are told they wanted to build houses on the site we have chosen at Chiaiano," he said. "And we have evidence the Camorra brought people onto the street, paying people to protest."

Police face protests from Naples residents
Police have faced strong protests from residents over new rubbish dump sites

The mafia's illicit companies, said Mr Ganapini, have infiltrated and sabotaged every effort to find a solution as there is big money in the waste disposal industry.

The magistrates continue to investigate the allegations of corruption.

On Tuesday, the city's chief officer Alessandro Pansa was one of 26 people named in a criminal inquiry into waste trafficking and fraud.

Mr Pansa served as the special commissioner last year. He denies any wrongdoing.

The other 25 suspects have now been placed under house arrest.

But, as the crisis drags on, there is a growing risk to public health.

The Naples Doctors Association recently expressed its concerns over the potential for disease to spread, with rats, cockroaches and insects thriving in the mountains of garbage.

"As we clear the backlog the rats come spilling out of the bags," said Domenico Montella, a rubbish collection supervisor.

"Sometimes there are hundreds of them, scattering in all directions.

"They have been treated to quite a feast," he jokes. "Some of them are bigger than my forearm."

Toxic waste

But it is not just the rats. The local council says the Camorra is dumping industrial waste wherever it can hide it. Scores of illegal tipping sites have been identified.

It is an ecological time-bomb - and the countdown has already started
Francesco Pascale
Environmental campaigner

"We have been left a poisonous legacy," said Mr Ganapini. "The Camorra have brought in thousands of tonnes of toxic waste, from the north, which they have hidden, untreated, all over the countryside."

And yet the council must surely take its share of the blame.

On the outskirts of the city, beneath enormous plastic covers, sit thousands of bales of compressed waste.

They call them eco balls - rubbish that was parcelled to burn as fuel. The problem is the solid and liquid waste within these bales was never properly separated. Who was checking and how could it go on for so long?

Francesco Pascale, from the environmental group Legambiente, estimates there are around seven million tonnes of this "processed" waste which the council is now stuck with.

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi has to tackle corruption, not just the rubbish

"If the eco-balls were burned," he said, "they would release dioxin and other toxic substances into the atmosphere.

"No other region and no other country wants to burn them."

And so this compacted rubbish sits in the dumps and decomposes.

"Toxic, heavy metal substances seep into the soil, creating health risks," said Mr Pascale. "And some of these sites are adjacent to farms!

"It is an ecological time-bomb - and the countdown has already started."

The countdown has certainly begun in Brussels

The European Commission is taking the Italian government to court. The plan, it says, was - perhaps still is - wholly insufficient. Silvio Berlusconi admits it is a national disgrace which he intends to resolve.

But then, over 15 years, at an estimated cost of 2bn euros, plenty of other new initiatives have ended in abject failure. Sweeping up the rubbish on the streets is one thing, cleaning up the root cause of the crisis - the corruption - is a far greater challenge.

Neapolitans torch rubbish piles
19 May 08 |  Europe

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