The mafia, mozzarella and Italy’s ‘Triangle of Death’

A new report on cancer clusters in Italy is reviving a debate about successive governments’ failure to combat illegal dumping of toxic waste by the mafia, despite loud protests from the Catholic Church and constant fines from Europe’s top court.

The findings from Italy’s National Health Institute are the latest evidence suggesting a link between decades of illegal dumping and burning of toxic waste in the Campania region around Naples and a higher rate of cancerous tumors.

“Life expectancy is two years lower than in the rest of the country,” Loredana Musmeci, director of the institute’s environmental department and one of the authors of the report, told POLITICO.

Commissioned by the previous administration, the new report received no publicity from the current Italian government. Posted on an official website, it drew attention only at the end of December 2015 when a campaigning priest posted it on Facebook. A health ministry spokesperson declined to comment on what plans the government had to follow up on its findings.

It was testimony from a mafia treasurer, kept secret by the authorities for more than a decade, that prompted the study. The mob witness, Carmine Schiavone, told a parliamentary inquiry back in 1997 that the Neapolitan Camorra, one of the three biggest mafia organizations in the country, had been disposing of toxic waste illegally for decades.

The health institute report blamed higher-than-usual cancer rates in the region on “confirmed or suspected exposure to a combination of environmental contaminants that can be emitted or released from illegal hazardous waste dump sites and/or the uncontrolled burning of both urban and hazardous waste.”

The region has wrestled with one waste-management crisis after another for the past decade, earning monikers including the “Triangle of Death” and “Land of Fires” for the piles of trash burned illegally.

At the same time, Italy has racked up nearly €100 million in fines for not abiding by several European Court of Justice rulings that demanded steps to combat illegal dumping, resolve the waste-management problem and make landfills compliant with EU regulations.

‘One more victim’

The study found that in the 23 municipalities in Caserta, the second largest province in Campania, there were unusually high levels of hospitalization for leukemia among children under the age of 14. In Naples, the same age group suffered an alarming rate of tumors in the central nervous system.

A World Health Organization expert said that link was crucial to counter attempts to play down the risks.

“Those who tried to deny the urgency of the situation have often said that the dumping occurred decades ago and so the situation did not pose a current threat to public health,” Marco Martuzzi, the WHO program manager for environmental health risk assessment, said in an interview.

However, despite the consensus among public health officials that the situation is dangerous, some officials still deny a link.

Top Italian prosecutor Raffaele Cantone, in an interview with the newspaper Il Foglio, called “the connection between buried waste and the onset of tumors overstretched.”

Cantone, who heads the National Anti-Corruption Authority, also publicly attacked — and later apologized to — Don Maurizio Patriciello, a local priest who has been campaigning against the dumping for more than a decade. Patriciello was a part of a delegation that testified to the European Parliament about the issue in April last year.

The Catholic Church has been active in the fight against organized crime in Italy via civil society groups like Libera (“free” in Italian), which was founded by a priest in 1995 and is one of the best-known anti-mafia movements in the country.

Don Maurizio, an iconic figure in the fight against the Camorra waste business, lost his brother to leukemia in September 2014. On Facebook, where he has nearly 50,000 followers, Patriciello said his brother was “one more victim of the Land of Fires.”

In his 1997 testimony to a parliamentary commission on illegal activities, mafia treasurer Schiavone spoke of “millions of tons” of buried waste making the mob vast profits over a decade, while the government took no action to stop the scam.

The dumping made headlines even before Schiavone’s revelations became public. High levels of dioxins were found in buffalo milk used to make high-quality mozzarella in 25 dairies in 2008, which health authorities linked to illegal dumping. The government recalled the contaminated mozzarella from the market, inflicting a considerable economic hit on the region.

‘Not a priority’

For years, European regulators have taken successive Italian governments to task for failing to clean up the region.

In 2010, when Silvio Berlusconi was prime minister, the ECJ accused Italy of “failing to adopt, for the region of Campania, all the measures necessary to ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health and without harming the environment.”

“When it comes to the Land of Fires there is no more left or right; every party has its share of responsibility and no one wants to admit it or be associated to it,” said Piernicola Pedicini, an MEP from the opposition Five Star Movement.

Last year, Pedicini tried to organize a visit to the area by the European Parliament’s environment committee, but the initiative failed. Pedicini said opposition appeared to have come from other Italians MEPs who did not want to be associated with the issue.

“The mission was not considered a priority by the other party coordinators and was therefore not approved,” commented a spokesperson for Italian MEP Giovanni La Via, the environment committee’s chairman from the conservative European People’s Party.

Last April, Pedicini also submitted a parliamentary question to the directorate general in charge of regional policy to find out how funds had been allocated to the region.

A couple of months later, Commissioner Corina Creţu replied that the EU’s 2007-2013 program for Campania had allocated €140 million to clean up contaminated sites, but also noted that just “€8 million has been certified so far to the Commission.”

If and how the remaining €132 million was used is unclear.

“Available figures show that, to date, there has been no change in this amount of expenditure,” a source from the Commission said. The allocation expired at the end of 2015, as countries get a two-year grace period to use EU funding.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in an interview with La Repubblica, three days before the deadline at the end of December 2015, that he would get the funds back and that no government had done as much for the region as his.

Daily penalty

While Renzi awaits an answer from the Commission to his request to keep the funding, he has set up a special fund within the 2016 Italian budget. Passed by parliament in late December, it allocates €150 million for “environmental, social and economic” interventions in the region in 2016 and 2017.

As well as putting its EU funding at risk, Italy’s inaction on illegal dumping has prompted a string of fines based on ECJ rulings.
In December 2014, Europe’s top court fined Italy €40 million for failing to combat illegal waste disposal in the area. According to the European Commission, Italy paid this as a lump sum in February 2015.

An ECJ ruling from June 2015 said the Commission had “established that 185 landfills have not yet been made compliant” and hit Italy with a further penalty of nearly €40 million, which the government paid in August 2015.

In July 2015 the court fined Italy another €20 million for waste management failings and imposed a daily fine of €120,000 until authorities resolve the problem. Italy made a payment in September 2015, but the fines are ongoing.

Asked about future fines and payments, the Commission said it was currently evaluating what level of compliance there had been in June-December 2015 and would then “write to Italy in early 2016 requesting the due penalty.”

“Until the measures taken to execute the judgment are fully implemented, Italy will have to pay the daily penalty,” wrote a Commission spokesperson in an email.

Following that judgment, Italy sent several documents to the Commission, provided both by the central administration in Rome and the regional government of Campania. The Commission wrote back in September 2015 urging agreement among Italian authorities at national and local level on the construction of waste-management installations in Campania.

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