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Mafia toxic waste dumping poisons Italy farmlands

Italy Poisoned Land

CAIVANO, Italy (AP) - On Ciro Fusco's farm in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, police swooped down one recent day and planted a warning sign in his broccoli fields, prohibiting any one from harvesting or even setting foot on the plot. Dozens of other fields in the area were sequestered in the same way. Decades of toxic waste dumping by the Camorra crime syndicate that dominates the Naples area poisoned wells, authorities have found in recent months, tainting the water that irrigates crops with high levels of lead, arsenic and the industrial solvent tetrachloride.

The warning came too late: Fusco had already sold some of his broccoli at nearby markets.

The farmlands around Naples, authorities say, are contaminated from the Mafia's multibillion-dollar racket in disposing toxic waste, mainly from industries in the wealthy north that ask no questions about where the garbage goes as long as it's taken off their hands - for a fraction of the cost of legal disposal. The poisoning is triggering widespread fear and outrage in the Naples area, and tens of thousands of people marched through the city's chaotic streets last month demanding to know whether they have been eating tainted vegetables for years.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the head of the Naples environmental police force rattled off a list of substances in higher than permissible levels contaminating 13 irrigation wells on farmlands: arsenic, cadmium, tin, beryllium and other metals; tetrachloride and tolulene among other chemicals used as industrial solvents.

Gen. Sergio Costa did not provide specific levels as tests were ongoing, but described the amounts as reaching "dangerous" levels. On one farm in Caivano, Costa said, four times the permissible level of lead was found in the irrigation well's water. Cabbages irrigated by that water were found to be contaminated with lead, although tomatoes irrigated with the same well showed no harmful lead levels, said Costa - illustrating the complexity of testing crops for toxicity. The wells are not used for drinking water.

Analyses of the vegetables are still being conducted, and Fusco was waiting to learn if his family's farm's broccoli was tainted. Costa said the crops, irrigated by wells later found to be contaminated, were sold only in markets in the Naples area. Officials estimate that waste seepage from one of the more notorious sites, a hill-like dump in the nearby farm town of Giugliano, a short drive away, will keep poisoning the water for half a century.

A top Camorra boss, Francesco Bidognetti, was convicted last month of poisoning the water table in the town of Gugliano with toxic waste and received a 20-year sentence. It was by far the stiffest punishment yet for waste dumping and a strong sign that the state is cracking down on the lucrative racket. Much of the waste the Camorra has trafficked has come from factories, processing plants and hospitals, mainly trucked down from in Italy's industrial north to the mobsters' power base near Naples and Caserta.

Some of the waste was buried under a soccer field in Casal di Principe, the stronghold of the Casalesi crime clan that dominates the illicit business, along with a few other families. Naples-based anti-Mafia Prosecutor Giovanni Conzo said in an interview that waste was also buried under a water-skiing pool in the town of Castel Volturno, near the sea.

Camorristi "poisoned their own territory, they poisoned their own blood," said Costa, the Naples environmental police force chief.

According to a nationwide environmentalist group, Legambiente, Camorra mobsters since 1991 have systematically dumped, burned or buried nearly 10 million tons of waste, almost all of it coming from factories that either don't seek to know where the waste ends up or are complicit in the crimes. According to evidence used in trials, the waste contained PCBs, asbestos, industrial sludge and metal drums filled with dangerous solvents used to make paint.

"How could this all happen?" Michele Buonomo, Legambiente's Naples-area president, said in an interview.

Franco Roberti, Italy's top organized crime fighter, offers an explanation.

It wasn't just the Camorra profiting off the waste racket, he said in an AP interview: In Italy's industrial north, factories and processing plants saved at least half the cost of the going rate of legitimate waste disposal or detoxification. Companies falsified documentation identifying the wastes' content, said the national anti-Mafia prosecutor. In the Camorra's power base, he added, town officials, dump operators or farmers with vacant land closed an eye for their own payoff.

Roberti said the first Camorra turncoat to reveal the business of waste trafficking told him in interrogations that "monnezza" - Neapolitan for garbage - was, in effect, worth its weight in gold.

Investigators' first big break came in 2007, nearly 20 years after the mobsters started trafficking in wastes. Turncoat Gaetano Vassallo, from the Casalesi clan, gave prosecutors a "very complete picture" about the racket, Roberti recalled. He told them where waste had been dumped and buried. And he indicated which companies, mainly in Italy's north, were turning to the Camorra to cart away waste.

Vassallo's tips were borne out when investigators, using backhoes and shovels, dug into the sprawling Giugliano dump. Exhaustive analyses of soil samples by a geologist in a two-year study, whose results were made public this fall, found many of the cancer-causing or otherwise harmful substances exactly where the turncoat said Bidognetti had them dumped over several years. Some of the waste trafficked by Bidognetti allegedly came from a major dye-manufacturing plant in the northwest Piedmont region, which was eventually shut down after Piedmont residents grew alarmed when local rivers were colored with the factory's runoff.

Geologist Giovanni Balestri's study, commissioned by Naples-based anti-Mafia prosecutors, of soil and aquifers contaminated by the dump found a laundry lists of substances similar to those discovered around the Caivano farms: Chromium, lead, nickel, sulfates, toluene and other substances - all in concentrations higher than, often far exceeding, permissible levels.

Costa said the vegetables irrigated by water from contaminated wells was destined for local markets, not supermarkets - whose strict quality standards, backed up by spot-checks, would virtually eliminate the possibility of any tainted produce from reaching tables beyond the Camorra's backyard.

Italy's agriculture minister last month hastened to assure consumers that testing of the produce is continuing "non-stop." Nunzia De Girolamo was referring to a strategy devised by Costa: Since much of the waste seeps down to aquifers, which feed irrigation wells, his squad is analyzing the water of each well supplied by the contaminated aquifers, a painstaking process that started this year and will take several more months to complete.

Farmers scoffed at the idea their vegetables - a key part of the much-touted healthy Mediterranean diet - would be bad to eat.

"I eat them, my sons eat them and my grandchildren eat them," said Domenico Della Corte, holding up a cauliflower as big as a bridal bouquet.

Meanwhile, Naples anti-mafia prosecutor Conzo speaks of another fear: The mob may be poised to cash in on the massive cleanup - using its time-tested expertise at muscling in on public contracts.

Join the discussion

1000|Char. 1000  Char.
carc206 December 21 2013 at 10:09 AM

Those northern Italian factories should be the ones to pay for the clean up of the affected areas because it is their "toxic waste" that is causing the problem.

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windsgroup December 20 2013 at 4:00 PM

The Italian government should use outside environmental remediation firms to do the cleanup. Any interest in syndicated or organized groups controlled by the miafia should be discouraged and contracts should be screened to ensure everything is ligitimate. Remediation costs should be charged back to those who contributed to the problem. This initiative would be similar to the legal action by the USEPA. The burden of the cost should not be paid by the Italian government or taxpayers but rather by the polluters themselves.

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ROY December 20 2013 at 4:42 PM

Put them in Prison and provide their water from the contaminated wells.

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texcohiba2 December 20 2013 at 4:54 PM

I suggest they harvest all the crops with prisoners and feed them to the prisoners ? I am sure the Italian prison populations could use some broccoli ? Logical ?

In addition export the products to the USA for our prisons ? Could be a great source of inspiration to the so called career criminals .

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Larry December 20 2013 at 4:59 PM

The most powerful rule of the Mafia, Omerta, is supposed to be hand-in-hand with the trust people have in that the mob will not harm innocents; especially their own.
It is obvious that these mad dogs are running amok and need to be put down. If they can't be killed, they need to be locked up for the rest of their lives and their assets be used to detoxify the landscape.
Same with the companies who knew what they were doing. The decision-makers need to be fined & locked away; their companies need to pay for the clean up. I'm not a eucologist, but everyone involved in the violation of the rules of conduct for people with any morals need to be punished; and in a way that will discourage others from considering the same dirty business.

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Sterling December 20 2013 at 5:16 PM

Sounds like crimes directly against the people and they know who's doing it.

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1 reply
nyhuguenot Sterling December 20 2013 at 9:49 PM

Of course they know. Who is Camorrosi or Mafiosi is no secret. It isn;t limited to Italy. I grew up in Brooklyn and even as a 10 year old I knew who the "men of respect" were.

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jofma December 20 2013 at 5:31 PM

So that's the secret ingredient of the famous Mediterranean diet. The Mafia and Camorra hate their own people. I'm Italian and I'm sick of them being glamorized.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
minutemaus December 20 2013 at 5:32 PM

Wasn't this depicted in an episode of "The Sopranos"?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
john December 20 2013 at 5:45 PM

I hate pizza

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gybark December 20 2013 at 5:49 PM

You reap what you sow. This is what you get when "Good men do nothing". It is simple , Independently review the companies that make the poison and track all shipments, Make the companies pay for it and Make them put a very large amount into an account. If they exceed a set number of infractions each year , they forfeit the money and pay fines and have to put money into the account for the next year. If the are complaint, then they get the interest on the money for the year minus expenses. There must be incentive for them to do the disposal the right way.

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