The rotten heart of Italy: See Naples and die (of the stench)

Southern Italy's most celebrated city is drowning in refuse, paralysed by corruption and almost bereft of hope. Peter Popham reports on a life-threatening crisis

The city of Naples, Italy's third biggest, the capital of the south, is caught in a trap of its own devising. And if you drive to the suburb of Pianura where police have been fighting with residents this week, you can get a good idea of the cruelty and fatality of this trap; and why there is a whiff of fear in the city's air just now, mixed with the stench of putrid rubbish.

The fear is that the Naples disease, which has put its rubbish-clogged streets on the world's news bulletins and newspapers day after day, is beyond cure. That for all the bold talk by politicians and by the new "rubbish tsar", who took up his emergency powers yesterday, there really is no way out.

Nowhere in this city has escaped the crisis that has been building since 21 December, the date of the last regular rubbish collection. The collections ceased because there was no longer anywhere to put the stuff: the plant where they compact solid waste into bales had again reached capacity and could take no more.

The city's landfill sites were closed years ago, on the orders of magistrates. The incinerator designed to burn the bales, that should have been completed and commissioned years back, is only half-built, the works frozen while magistrates investigate dirty dealings. So the domestic rubbish, dumped in wheelie bins on the street and awaiting collection, stayed where it was chucked. And accumulated. And accumulated and accumulated some more.

It's frightening to see how quickly a modern city can be swallowed by its own refuse. We start from the railway station and drive towards the northern suburb of Pianura and it's clear that nowhere has been spared. Everywhere, the big plastic or steel bins are disappearing under a rising tide of plastic bags, cardboard boxes, Christmas trees, bits of polystyrene, rotting vegetables, used disposable nappies, broken kitchen implements, crap of every description.

You drive down a clean, swept street and begin to think that some enchanted suburb has found a solution – but there, at the end of the road, by the petrol station, by a patch of waste ground or under the windows of some unlucky flat-dwellers, the dwellers of the clean, swept street have reached a silent compact to dump their stuff.

Pianura is punctuated, like everywhere else, with these huge, putrifying mounds, some 8ft or 10ft high now, sliding down to swallow the entire pavement so mothers with pushchairs and old folks with walking sticks are forced to fight with Naples's uniquely aggressive traffic for a share of the road.

But Pianura is doubly cursed. Because, as well as producing its own share of the city's millions of tonnes of daily waste, it is home to an old rubbish dump. It was closed seven years ago along with others in the city: the hope was that a new generation of clean, green, energy-generating incinerators would take their place. But now the only way the regional government can climb out of its present, evil-smelling hole is to reopen Pianura and start dumping there again.

The residents are not amused. Nobody in the world likes a rubbish dump in their back yard, even less an ex-rubbish dump of which they believed themselves well rid. But it's worse than that.

The equivalent of the Mafia in Naples is called the Camorra. A chaotically divided, feuding patchwork of gangs and clans, for decades it dominated every aspect of waste disposal in the region. "Before 1994, the Camorra controlled the entire waste cycle," said Michele Buonomo, president of an environmental group called Legambiente Campana. "The Camorra isn't actually that interested in household waste but it is interested in controlling the waste cycle, controlling the dumps."

By undercutting the bids of legitimate operators, the gangs took over dumps such as Pianura's. They also controlled the disposal of waste, and used the sites they owned to dispose not only of household waste from Naples but also, and crucially, of hazardous industrial waste from far and wide.

Pianura's rubbish dump is reached down a long, winding lane in the shadow of a steep hill, on the far side of which is a nature park. The hillside is lushly green now and odourless, but not far beneath the green surface lurk the decomposing remains of the millions of tons of waste dumped here over the decades, including nobody knows how much toxic and even radioactive waste brought from factories and other plants across Italy. Residents say the site is still leaking toxic dioxins, which account for the high incidence of malignant tumours in the community.

The claims are not far-fetched. In 2004, a Neapolitian researcher called Alfredo Mazza published a paper in The Lancet Oncology, the British medical journal, identifying what he called "a triangle of death" between the towns of Nola, Acerra and Marigliano in the Naples region, where he discovered that cases of liver cancer were more than twice the national average. High rates of stomach, nervous system and prostate cancers were also found. Dr Mazza placed the blame for the plague squarely on the illegal rubbish dumps in the area, owned and managed by the Camorra, stuffed with radioactive and toxic waste and leaking radioactivity and deadly gases over many years.

The people of Pianura believe they are victims of the same syndrome. When the national government announced that their local dump would be reopened to deal with the rubbish emergency, they erupted in fury. Today a lorry bars the only way in to the lane that leads to the dump, and a banner strapped to the side reads "No to the dump without ifs or buts – Pianura non-violent".

Yesterday the police had pulled back after the clashes of the previous days, and knots of local men stood around in the lane discussing what to do next.

"We are waiting for geologists to arrive," said Ciro Cigliano, a local house-painter. "They are going to take samples from the site to find what's coming out. This dump is a bomb of radioactivity and toxicity: if they open it again all the poison will escape. You can tell the world, we are not going to let it happen. Plenty of people around here are suffering from cancer already."

The decision – the government insists it has already been taken – to reopen sites such as Pianura is not merely a source of fury to Mr Cigliano and his neighbours; it is also a confession by Italy's ruling politicians of comprehensive failure, failure so dramatic and so total that at least one commentator, Pierluigi Battista writing in Corriere della Ser a newspaper, sees it as the end of an era, not just for Naples but for Italy.

In 1994, Italy was on the threshold of a new age. The dominant political parties, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, had gone into meltdown after Tangentopoli, the huge bribery scandal that had erupted in Milan two years before. Italy's Communists, Europe's largest Communist party, kept from power over the decades by American pressure, seized their moment, as Communist parties all over eastern Europe were shrinking and dissolving.

And when the EU issued its rubbish directive, mandating the phasing-out of waste disposal in the evil old landfill sites and their replacement by the separation and recycling of rubbish, and the building of ecologically clean new incinerators, Naples was in the front line of change. Under a telegenic new post-Communist mayor, Antonio Bassolino, a bold new age of rubbish disposal was announced.

But since then, everything that could go wrong did. The people of Naples should have been educated and bullied into separating their rubbish: nobody made the effort, and today, as the mountains of undifferentiated waste bear witness, hardly anyone bothers. Over the years, the undifferentiated waste was compacted into bales as fuel for the incinerators. But the new incinerators depend on fuel that has been separated out: and Naples's most glaring problem is that seven million unuseable bales of compacted, undifferentiated rubbish fill the available storage facilities to bursting. And nobody has the faintest clue what to do about it.

The "rubbish tsars" appointed one after another since 1994 to sort out the problems once and for all have signally failed to do that; and their administration has become a huge, money-sucking, corrupt monster, answerable to no one.

This week, the Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, appointed the seventh such commissioner to take up the challenge, a tough police chief called Giovanni de Gennaro, still standing trial in Genoa charged with using excessive force against anti-globalisation protesters at the G-8 summit in Genoa in 2002. Mr Prodi has given him just four months to crack the present emergency, get the frozen incinerator completed, and begin work on two more. And in the meantime to dismantle the corrupt and wasteful commissariat at the top of which he sits.

As a first emergency measure, rubbish has already set sail for dumps in Sardinia, other regions of Italy have agreed to accept more, and further smelly exports may go as far as Germany to find a final home. But that is costing far too much to go on for long. "Building the incinerators is essential," says Mario Orfeo, editor of Il Mattino, Naples's daily paper. "But it's not enough: the incinerators will be able to take 600 million tons of rubbish per year but that leaves afurther 900 million tons to be dealt with."

That's why the government insists that dumps, including Pianura's, must be reopened, whatever the local resistance. And the toxic ghosts of another age will walk again.

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