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Cleaning up the mafia’s toxic waste

| February 6, 2014

It sounds like something straight out of a movie: incarcerated mafia informants tip off the authorities to a hidden mafia burial ground.

In this case, it’s not a movie — it’s straight out of the New York Times. And what’s buried there isn’t what you might be thinking, but it’s awfully sinister nonetheless.

It turns out that a subset of the mafia known as the Camorra, who hail from Southern Italy, have made billions of dollars in a toxic waste disposal scheme that originated more than two decades ago.

From Milosz1.

Improperly disposing of toxic garbage was a lucrative business for the Camorra. From Milosz1.

Toxic garbage might not be the first line of business you think of when you consider the mafia, but it proved to be an incredibly lucrative operation.

Here’s what happened, as New York Times writer Jim Yardley reports: in Italy, landfill space is at a premium, and legal disposal of hazardous waste is exceptionally expensive. So expensive, in fact, that manufacturing companies throughout Italy and beyond were desperate to minimize costs associated with disposal.

The Camorra capitalized on the need, accepting payments in exchange for getting rid of the waste. Unfortunately, their method of disposal wasn’t just illegal; it was downright dangerous.

They buried the toxic garbage throughout the Campania region of Italy, which includes the Camorra’s home city of Naples. “By burying the waste in its backyard…the mob ensured a measure of protection, and silence,” reports Yardley. “Bosses often exert a powerful influence over the local economy and politicians.”

We aren’t just talking about a few bags of garbage. Volume has been estimated at 10 million tons, and the operation netted the Camorra “billions of dollars.”

The money paid to the mafia for disposal is likely not the only price that has been paid. The years of garbage leaching hazardous chemicals into the earth may have come at an extraordinarily high cost to public health in the affected areas. A local cardiologist published a report in 2004 detailing “an alarming ris e in local cancer cases.”

“We’re living on top of a bomb,” the cardiologist, Dr. Alfred Mazza, said in The Times. The United States Navy conducted research on the water supply around Naples in 2008 and found “unacceptable risks” due to water conservation and, as Yardley says, “recommended that all Americans stationed in the region use bottled water for drinking, food preparation and brushing teeth.”

While Yardley is quick to note that no study has proven a direct link between the Camorra’s dumping grounds and public health threats, “a World Health Organization report conducted with national and local health institutions documented clusters of liver, kidney, pancreatic and other cancers in areas known as dump sites.”

Now people are wondering what can be done about the damage, and whether it’s feasible to hold the Camorra accountable. More than a half million people live in the region and the public is increasingly incensed about the toxic conditions, resulting in protests and calls for immediate action. Italian officials are well aware of the problem, but some think they aren’t reacting appropriately.

According to Yardley, “the question is whether the Italian government will confront the Camorra and clean up the mess — and whether the mess can be cleaned up at all.”

Category: Pollution

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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