Kicking up a stink in battle for Italian idyll

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The Independent Online
Orvieto is one of the prettiest hill towns in Italy, a celebrated wine- making centre with a well-preserved medieval centre and a stupendously beautiful cathedral perched on an outcrop of volcanic tufa.

What is the first thing you'd do if you had the run of a place like that? How about sticking a 150ft rubbish incinerator right beneath its imposing walls and encouraging every juggernaut in Umbria, plus a few from the neighbouring regions of Tuscany and Lazio, to rumble in day and night to deliver heavy-duty garbage?

The proposal, incredibly, is not a joke but is being put forward with great vigour, not to mention a certain degree of subterfuge, by Orvieto's mayor, Stefano Cimicchi.

Without telling anyone in Orvieto itself, Mr Cimicchi was last month on the verge of a signing a contract with a company called Sao to build the incinerator - in an inhabited area next to a river less than two miles from the city walls. He had even lined up a deal with the state electricity company, Enel, to buy the rather negligible quantity of energy that the incinerator was expected to produce.

But then, just a couple of weeks ago, Mr Cimicchi was found out. A chance discovery by the local chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature led to a furious public meeting at which insults were hurled in all directions. A group of local celebrities - writers, politicians, architects and environmentalists, most of whom live in Rome and come up to Orvieto for the weekend - stopped little short of physical force to prevent Mr Cimicchi from signing his contracts.

The mayor, in turn, described them dismissively as spoiled rich kids and "intellectual pains in the backside", urging them to dedicate themselves to more worthwhile causes and vowing to press ahead with the project in the interests of Orvieto's economy.

The battle is showing few signs of abating. Mr Cimicchi has referred the issue to the Umbrian regional government to buy time. The protesters, meanwhile, have set up a fighting fund to hire lawyers and independent technical experts. One senses a distinct class problem between the celebrities, who are rich, educated and well-spoken, and Mr Cimicchi the country boy, whose manner makes up in directness what it lacks in subtlety or wit.

One protester described him as "a cross between Saddam Hussein and Steve Martin". The Iraqi reference is not accidental, since one of Mr Cimicchi's more curious recent acts has been to twin Orvieto with Baghdad - the idea being to bring a prestigious exhibition of Iraqi art works to the green heart of Italy, even if it does mean kowtowing to one of the world's more unpleasant dictators.

What is the real story behind the craziness? The rumours suggest anything from dirty deals within Mr Cimicchi's party, the left-wing PDS (which many of the protesters support, too), to the involvement of the Mafia, whose interest in the toxic waste business is well documented all over Italy. For example in Fabro, just a few miles up the road from Orvieto, a large consignment of toxic waste was recently discovered in the foundations of a brand-new agricultural exhibition centre.

Why build an incinerator at all? A company called Prometeus has developed a system to recycle heavy waste and turn the rest into compost. But nobody in Umbria itself seems interested.