July 10, 2008

In Naples, Trash Rules

NAPLES, Italy _ This may be the only city on earth where the nation's prime minister was forced to send a well-armed military regiment to guard the garbage dump. The soldiers are dug in, ready to fight.

At this moment, it's not clear whether they are preparing to take on residents, who riot and rampage every time the city tries to open a new dump, injuring police and firefighters _ or the mafia that controls the region's refuse business and has been known to decapitate enemies with a circular saw.

No matter. That's what it has come to here, lending proof to the popular aphorism making the rounds in Brussels: Naples is the worst managed city in the worst managed country in Europe.

No doubt you've heard of the Naples garbage crisis. By one count, likely incomplete, it has spawned more than 3,000 English-language news stories over the past year, most of them short and formulaic: No one collects the city's garbage because there's no longer any place to put it. The landfills are full. So the trash piles up, sometimes to second-story windows, and as the weeks pass it gives off an ever-more putrid stench. Occasionally the army arrives with bulldozers to plow paths through the garbage so the kids can get to school.

European Union rules require each nation to reduce trash thrown into landfills by 50 percent before 2015 _ or pay multi-million Euro fines. My advice to Naples: Start saving your money.

Last month, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dispatched the army and declared the garbage dumps to be closed military zones. Meantime his garbage czar _ the eighth appointed in the last few years _ found another temporary palliative. Right now, Naples is clearing streets, shipping some of its trash to Hamburg, Germany, where officials say they are willing to take it, but only for a few weeks.

Berlusconi, the tough guy, would certainly like everyone to believe that he stepped in to solve a problem that no one else could. But I would argue that the crisis had already crossed a threshold, infringing on something so sacred, so inviolable to Italians, that no leader could fail to act. But Neapolitans traveled a difficult journey before they got to this brief hiatus.

Naples' garbage crisis was almost two decades in the making. In the early '90s, the local mafia realized they could make a killing, so to speak, in the garbage business. By undercutting every other bidder, they won the trash contract. Ever since, they have picked up Naples' trash but then dumped it wherever they pleased _ in fields, streams, grottos _ hundreds of illegal dumps. They paid off some officials, gunned down others over breakfast. That's how one hapless fellow died in May.

Needless to say, these garbage men made no effort to segregate toxic wastes. Soon poisonous seepage from mafia dumps began polluting the groundwater. The first sign of trouble was the sheep. As one local writer put it early this year, they "do not so much graze as stagger about. Every now and again, one of them falls over." A few weeks ago, the E.U. initiated legal action for gross refuse-disposal violations. The trash czar considered building a sophisticated incinerator but found that residents remained inalterably opposed _ certain that the mafia would wind up in control of the new facility and use it to burn toxic materials, polluting their air as well as their water. For similar reasons they oppose opening new dumps.

Already, the World Health Organization has found "significant excesses" in stomach, kidney, liver, lung and pancreatic cancers here. The United States warned Americans to stay away from Naples.

Tourism has fallen by almost half as garbage rots in the torrid summer heat. One Neapolitan couple, afraid for their survival, requested asylum in Switzerland. The author of a best-selling book about all of this was forced into something akin to witness protection.

But then came the first hint of the truly epochal problem: This spring, veterinarians examining the dead sheep found heavy concentrations of dioxin, a highly toxic industrial byproduct, in their blood.

Well, if the sheep were being poisoned, what about the water buffalo? Sure enough, within weeks investigators found high levels of dioxin in the area's premier, sacrosanct product: buffalo mozzarella, made from water-buffalo milk. France, China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore banned buffalo mozzarella imports. Overnight, sales fell by 40 percent.

Suddenly the trash was no longer just a problem. Now it was a catastrophe! Berlusconi called up the military. Finally, he had no choice.



Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: [email protected]


(c) 2008, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO of Joel Brinkley is available from the ``Columnist Mugs'' section of MCT Direct.

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