The European Commission (EC) has signalled that its patience is running out with Italy's failure to clean up hundreds of illegal waste-landfill sites that experts say pose a serious threat to public health.
Yesterday, it asked the EU courts to impose a fine of €56m (£45m), plus an additional daily penalty of €257,000, until the Italian government complies with a 2007 ruling ordering it to close down the sites.
"It is clear that problems persist in almost all Italian regions," an EC statement said. "The Commission has therefore decided to take Italy back to the court and ask for fines."
In the 2007 ruling, Italy was told to clean up 255 landfill sites, 16 of which contained hazardous waste. So far, it has acted to clean up only 132 of the sites, the Commission said.
Naples has been the city worst affected by Italy's refuse crisis. In recent years, thousands of tons of stinking rubbish have at times accumulated on the streets of the southern port. But other places, most noticeably Palermo in Sicily and the Lazio region surrounding Rome, have also seen mounds of refuse line their streets.
In Naples residents have often impeded the construction of efficient new incineration sites, claiming they would be exposed to the pollution from them. But most observers think the protests are encouraged by the region's Mafia, the Camorra, which earns hundreds of millions of euros each year by providing illegal waste-disposal services.
By burying waste or burning it in or near agricultural zones, there are fears that toxins including heavy metals and even dioxins are entering the food chain.
In August, research suggested women in the Naples area were almost 50 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer than their compatriots. Italian and American researchers from the Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research at Temple University in Philadelphia and Giulio Tarro, a senior doctor at the Cotugno hospital in Naples, blamed the raised cancer risk on the disposal and incineration of toxic and industrial refuse.
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