A Ticking Time Bomb

The dumping is not only a threat to physical health but also to Italy’s future.

News | Christian Cummins | June 2007

This spring, forest wardens in the beautiful Gola dei Tre Monti valley in Abruzzo made a shocking discovery. They uncovered barrels and barrels of dangerously toxic chemical waste.

The illegal dumping ground they found is said to cover an area of the forest floor the size of about six football pitches, and authorities believe that, in total, the tip contains a total of 240,000 tons of hazardous waste, making it the biggest illegal toxic rubbish dump in the country.

It’s the huge scale of the discovery in central Italy that has shocked many people. The mere fact that such poisonous discharge was found wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows anymore.

In fact, these dumps, which are known as ‘eco-balls’ are actually frighteningly common. Official figures say there are at least 400,000 tonnes of eco-balls in the Naples region alone.

Organised crime syndicates have been charging manufacturers cut-rate prices to haul away mercury, lead, battery acid, and other by-products of industry and dump them, untreated, in areas that they think few people will visit.

It’s a good deal for the mafia, which, it’s claimed, gets paid up to 10,000 dollars for getting rid of a single truckload of the toxic waste. And it’s a good deal for cynical industrial companies who might otherwise have to pay 10 times as much to pay legitimate waste companies to dispose of the waste in an environmentally responsible way.

So the mob has no shortage of takers for its illicit services and the clandestine waste business has developed into a billion dollar business. Indeed, experts say that the black-market trade in industrial waste dumping is the second most important source of revenue for the Camorra in Naples.

It is not, however, ‘a good deal’ for the average Italian. Rome-based journalist Christian Fraser describes how if you visit these sites you’ll see drums of this poisonous waste that are slowly rotting or rusting away. And therein lays the real threat.

"It’s not necessarily a problem now," Fraser says. "but in 10 or 15 years the toxic waste is going to start seeping into the ground water and into the food chain."

It’s clear that these illegal dumps are a ticking health bomb for Italy and the effects are starting to be felt. In 2004 The Lancet

Oncology, a renowned British medical journal, identified a "triangle of death" east of Naples where massive dumps of toxic waste has been linked to a higher incidence of cancer, especially liver cancer and, a year earlier, several thousand buffalo cows, famous for their delicious mozzarella, were culled in the area because their milk contained dioxin levels ten times over the legal European limits.

This widespread problem is not only a threat to future physical health of Italy but also for the country’s economic future.

Firstly, the estimated costs of cleaning up all of these sites could run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, a bill Italians are leaving their children and grandchildren to foot. Secondly, analysts say Italy’s flagrant failure to stop the process is putting off investors.

And thirdly, tourism workers in the stunning but now tainted Gola dei Tre Monti valley will be crying into their hats. So why has nothing been done about the illegal dumping?

It is a sign of the enduring power of organised crime in the country, Fraser says: "When councils start enquiring about this issue, some of them are threatened by the mafia.

Or they are moved from their jobs because someone higher up is in league with those involved in the illegal dumping."

Yet now, finally, things do seem to be moving. Partly under pressure from the European Commission, which is drafting its own strict laws on eco-crime, the Italian government has recently adopted a draft bill under which the perpetrators of "environmental catastrophes" would face by up to 10 years in prison.

But does the new law have teeth? Legislation was already passed in 2001 to help punish dumping of toxic waste, but few people have actually been prosecuted.

It still remains very difficult to penetrate the murky world of mob-driven business and see where the waste has come from and where it is going. We will have to wait and see:

"Yes it’s good that there are tougher penalties and stricter laws," Fraser says, "but the problem is putting people in place to actually follow the trail and pin down the companies that are behaving illegally."

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