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Europe's Biggest Illegal Dump — ‘Italy’s Chernobyl’ — Uncovered in Mafia Heartland

The site is the length of 30 soccer fields and is suspected to contain tons of toxic waste, which has turned some of the soil pink and blue.

by Christopher Livesay
Jun 19 2015, 6:30pm

Photo par Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

It's being called Italy's Chernobyl — but with all the trappings of the mafia.

Authorities near Naples have uncovered Europe's biggest known illegal dumpsite in history, spanning the length of 30 soccer fields, with tons of industrial trash feared to be toxic and adding to the region's alarming cancer rate.

In the small town of Calvi Risorta on Friday, sanitation workers cloaked in hazmat suits and armed with Geiger counters resumed excavating over two million cubic meters of hazardous material, including containers with flammable solvents that had turned portions of the soil pink and blue.

Likening the discovery to an ecological "slaughterhouse," Italian Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said it would take over a month to conduct an initial cleanup and evaluate the possible risk of radioactivity.

"We still don't know how much and what kind of trash it is," he said.

Forestry officials began examining the 60-acre field after rumors of buried chemical drums prompted local journalists to investigate. Salvatore Minieri, of online daily paesenews.it compared photographs from the 1960s to aerial images shot with a drone. After noticing the recent appearance of dirt mounds overgrown with brush, he and his cameraman began to dig.

"It 's one layer of toxic industrial waste on top of another, capped by cement, with only a few inches of soil on top," Minieri told VICE News. "It's been here for decades. Unfortunately it turned out to be the biggest illegal industrial dump on the continent."

He and police say the dump bears the fingerprints of the Casalesi gang, the most notorious clan of the Camorra mafia. In 2006, their inner workings were laid bare in the international bestselling Gomorrah by Neapolitan author Roberto Saviano, who has been under round-the-clock police protection ever since.

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Details of the Casalesi clan's involvement in the waste racket emerged in 1997, when Camorra turncoat Carmine Schiavone outlined their methods to police, claiming the lucrative practice dated back to at least the 1980s.

Discoveries of numerous dumps since have earned the area between Naples and Caserta, in the Campania region, the ignoble moniker terra dei fuochi — land of fires, after the common mafia practice of setting trash ablaze, releasing untold airborne toxins.

"This is Italy's Chernobyl," Stefano Ciafani, vice president of environmental group Legambiente, told VICE News, citing cancer rates there that are 80 percent higher than the national average.

"It's killed thousands of people so far, and it will kill thousands more," he said.

Legambiente estimates that 10 billion tons of waste has been buried in the area since 1992, generating lucrative income for the mob. In 2013, the mafia's eco-crimes netted nearly 17 billion euros.

The Camorra, which is comprised of 350 clans, has gone to great lengths to tighten its grip on underground waste. By infiltrating local sanitation departments, the crime group is able to hamper legal routes of disposal, leading to chronic clogging of dumpsites — thereby increasing the demand for their own illegal services. As a result, Naples streets are routinely overflowing with garbage. In recent years the problem has spread as far north as Rome.

But organized crime is not entirely to blame, experts said. Sometimes factories, many of which are based in Italy's industrial north, knowingly seek out mobsters to dispose of their waste for cheap.

Companies will even bypass the mafia and do it themselves, says Anna Sergi, an expert on organized crime at the University of West London.

"The business is so lucrative that it also attracts white collar criminals, working from within legitimate businesses," she told VICE News. "The aim is always profit, either by actively taking care of dumping or by ignoring rules for legal waste disposal."

Italy's failure to curb illegal dumping has racked up an impressive rap sheet.

In December, the European Court of Justice fined the country 40 million euros for longstanding violation of the EU's waste-management laws.

"In particular, 218 sites …were not in conformity," according to the ruling, noting that sixteen of those sites contained illegal hazardous waste.

It was the fourth time the court fined Italy in a decade, citing the country's resistance to sustainable forms of waste management, such as incinerators that convert garbage into energy that are more common in northern Europe.

Related: Suspected Italian mafia boss nabbed in Argentina while trying to enter Brazil

Italy lags behind in large part due to the mafia protecting its revenue. "It's in their interest to interfere with the delay," says Sergi.

The mafia has even been alleged to infiltrate the Italian government in its illicit disposal of trash, which can span far from home.

In 1994, Italian broadcast journalist Ilaria Alpi and Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin were ambushed and shot dead in their jeep in Mogadishu by a commando unit.

A 1999 book by Alpi's parents alleged they were killed to stop them from revealing an international arms and toxic-waste ring, implicating high-level political and military figures in both Italy and Somalia.

A former mobster confirmed those claims in 2009, alleging they were assassinated because they had witnessed toxic waste shipped by the 'Ndrangheta, the powerful syndicate based in the southern Italian region of Calabria, to Somalia.

In Italy, residents who live near the massive dumpsite in Calvi Risorta hope stricter regulations will finally see the tide of toxic trash reversed.

Last month, Italy passed a law that makes illegal dumping a high felony that carries jail time. "Before, culprits would repeat the same crime over and over again, risking a mere slap on the wrist," said Ciafani of Legambiente. "Perhaps now they'll think twice."

The Campania regional command of the forestry police said it would identify the culprits by triangulating the provenance of the buried materials, some of which bore labels from a variety of European countries.

With so much damage already done, it will take decades for the ecological and health consequences to play out. Legambiente says that rivers and streams around Naples are so contaminated that they will remain a health hazard until 2080.

"Everyone knows someone with cancer around here," says Minieri, who lives just three miles from the dumpsite. "Just six years ago my cousin died of a liver tumor. She was forty-four. Meanwhile, no one ever noticed this enormous underground dump — either officials didn't know about it, or they pretended not to." 

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Follow Christopher Livesay on Twitter: @cLivesay