Italian police seize farmland in Naples region over toxic pollution fears

Decades of Naples mafia dumping industrial waste has poisoned wells

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 12:30am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 December, 2013, 12:30am


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 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 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 markets in nearby towns.

The farmlands around Naples, authorities say, are contaminated from the mafia's multibillion-dollar racket in disposing of toxic waste, mainly from industries in the wealthy north that ask no questions about where the rubbish 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.

The head of the Naples environmental police force rattled off a list of substances at higher than permissible levels contaminating 13 irrigation wells on farmlands: Arsenic, cadmium, tin, beryllium and other metals; and tetrachloride and toluene 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 from 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 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 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.

According to an environmental group, Legambiente, Camorra mobsters have since 1991 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 dangerous solvents.