Mon, Dec 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mafia toxic waste dumping poisons Italy farmlands

Italians are proud of the quality of their food and healthy nature of their diet, but an alleged organized crime practice of indiscriminately dumping industrial waste may have contaminated farmland for generations

BY Frances D’emilio  /  AP, CAIVANO, Italy

Illustration: Yusha

On Ciro Fusco’s farm in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, police swooped down one day recently and planted a warning sign in his broccoli fields, prohibiting anyone 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 has 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-US 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 is 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, 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.

General 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 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.

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