This Europe: Where there's toxic muck, there's a mafia money-maker

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Farmers in the idyllic central Italian countryside of Umbria, a favourite spot for British second homes, have been tricked by agents of organised crime into covering their fields in toxic waste.

Farmers in the idyllic central Italian countryside of Umbria, a favourite spot for British second homes, have been tricked by agents of organised crime into covering their fields in toxic waste.

A farmer in the Umbrian hamlet of Montona coming out of the local farm store with a supply of seed was approached by a salesman from a company called Ecoverde (Ecogreen) with an unbeatable offer: 20 truckloads of a new type of fertiliser, guaranteeing him spectacular growth, free, with the promise of more to buy if he was happy with the results.

But when his pond turned black and his fish swelled and died he became suspicious. The mayor of the tiny community had to spend €200,000 (£133,000), one fifth of his annual budget, on carting the filth away.

But other farmers paid for their poison, and now the owner of Ecoverde, Albert Paggi, and 57 others have been arrested and charged under Italy's recently tightened laws against waste-trafficking.

As a three-year police investigation into mafia and other crime gangs in the illegal disposal of hazardous waste approaches the trial stage, the size of Italy's muck and mafia problem is growing clearer. There are 705 illegal waste-sites across the southern half of the country, from Umbria to Bari on the Adriatic, containing more than 4,000 illegal dumps. The business is believed to be worth €7bn a year in sales, and involve 22 different criminal gangs.

At the top of the chain are the factories of northern Italy which generate most of Italy's prosperity, and most of its hazardous waste, too. Legitimate disposal of the most dangerous costs up to €1 per kilo. So when companies with respectable names such as Ecoverde, offer to do the job for one-tenth of the price, managers are tempted.

"If industry wants to reduce its costs," the manager of Ecobat, a legitimate disposer of used batteries, told Businessweek magazine, "it just closes its eyes."

After leaving the factories, the waste is laundered through treatment centres where corrupt middlemen reclassify it as non-hazardous, then send it to the poorer, less populated south, where the criminal gangs are based.

The waste is dumped at sites in poor, marginal areas where bribery or intimidation keep the local authorities quiet. Ecoverde is accused of leaving the stuff in national parks in the south. Best of all is if you can find someone gullible enough to buy it.

The involvement of organised crime in illegal waste disposal in Italy has been known for more than 10 years, but the sclerotic legal system has failed to check it. In an early case, illegal dumps were discovered in the hill town of Pitelli in Liguria that generated billions of lira for the gangs controlling the trade. But the trials of those arrested have yet to begin, and many charges have expired because of the statute of limitations. Pitelli is now designated a national disaster area.

In 2001, parliament belatedly awoke to the menace and raised illegal waste trafficking from a misdemeanour to a felony. But vast damage has been done already to Italy's environment.

A cost yet to be counted is the effect on public health. At the village of Canniaola di Trevi in Perugia,residents were so upset by the stench from a notionally legitimate dump that they forced the authorities to investigate. In the province of Campania, around Naples, a health official reports that officials who should have been alerted by escalating levels of toxin in dump sites were bought off by gangs. He believes a 400 per cent rise in cancers from 1996 to 1999 is connected to contamination of groundwater.

Criminals are involved in waste disposal elsewhere in Europe, but Italy is in a league of its own. "It's the direct control of organised crime that makes Italy different," says Roberto Ferrigno, EU policy director at the European environment bureau in Brussels. The anti-mafia commission says gangs control 30 per cent of Italy's waste companies.