Italy has been singled out as the worst environmental offender in Europe in a report by the EU's Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas.
The report accuses Italian authorities of failing to do enough to tackle soaring levels of pollution. The country is being taken to task for breaking environmental rules in no fewer than 80 separate cases, more than twice the number of France and Britain (37 each) and well ahead of the second worst offender, Spain (59). Eight of the cases are expected to conclude in fines worth a total of about €100m (£69m).
Mr Dimas did not mince his words. "Notwithstanding previous admonitions," he said, "Italy has not completely respected community norms on the environment and has not co-operated fully with our requests for information.
"The Italian authorities must rapidly adopt the necessary measures so that Italian citizens and the environment of their country are able to benefit from the protection afforded by community rights."
Italy's new Minister of the Environment, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, has promised a fresh initiative. "We want to give the EU a strong and clear signal of discontinuity from the behaviour of the Berlusconi government," he said this week. "Among other reasons we are concerned about the economic consequences of the environmental failings of the Berlusconi government, which have made Italy the black sheep of Europe.
"The previous government did not defend the environment ... Europe wants to see a change of attitude on the part of the Italian government."
The fines already mentioned did not take into account extra penalties that may be applied under the Kyoto agreement for the increase in greenhouse gases discharged by Italy, the minister said.
Environmental organisations in Italy have been sounding the alarm about the pollution in the country for years. Among the more pernicious problems are the increasing involvement of Mafia-like gangs of criminals muscling into the disposal of hazardous waste: offering bargain prices to factories in northern Italy with dangerous waste to dispose of, trucking it to the south of the country, faking the documentation and dumping it in landfills or even in national parks.
Several of the problems specified by the European commissioner have been in the spotlight for years, including the disposal of hazardous waste at Granciara di Castelliri, in central Italy, and pollution from the burning of hydrocarbons at Rodano, near Milan.