Mafia toxic waste dumping poisons Italy's farms

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CAIVANO, Italy (AP) - On Ciro Fusco's farm in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, police swooped down one recent day and planted a sign prohibiting anyone from harvesting the broccoli or even setting foot on the land.

It was too late: some of his crops had already been sold at nearby markets. Now the farmer is waiting for the results of lab tests to see if his vegetables were tainted by toxic waste.

The farmlands around Naples, authorities say, are contaminated from the Mafia's multibillion-dollar racket in disposing of toxic waste, mainly from industries in Italy's north that ask no questions about where their garbage goes for a fraction of the cost of legal disposal. Dozens of area fields have been sequestered, after authorities found that decades of toxic waste dumping by the Camorra crime syndicate had poisoned the wells, tainting the water that irrigates crops with lead, arsenic and the industrial solvent tetrachloride.

In a strong signal that the state is cracking down on the lucrative business, a top Camorra boss, Francesco Bidognetti, was convicted last month of poisoning the water table in the town of Giugliano with toxic waste and received a 20-year sentence. It was the stiffest punishment yet for waste dumping. Officials estimate that the waste seepage at a hill-like dump in Giugliano will keep poisoning the water there for half a century.

The findings have sparked protests by tens of thousands of people who marched through Naples' streets last month demanding to know whether they have been eating tainted vegetables for years.

One of them was Anna Magri, whose son died of leukemia a few months shy of his third birthday. Magri said she doesn't buy fruit and vegetables from local open-air markets anymore because she fears toxic waste dumping might be linked to his cancer. Studies are being conducted to try to determine if there is a link between the area's cancer rates and the toxic waste dumping.

"I buy at the supermarkets now. I have two other children" to worry about, said Magri, who lives in Afragola, a town in the heart of the dumping area. While the vegetables irrigated by water from contaminated wells go to local markets, supermarkets are considered safe because they have strict quality standards backed up by spot checks.

Gen. Sergio Costa, Naples' environmental police chief, said the Camorristi have "poisoned their own territory, they poisoned their own blood."

Tests are still ongoing, but Costa described the amounts in area wells as reaching "dangerous" levels. In an interview with The Associated Press, Costa rattled off a list of substances in higher-than-permissible levels contaminating 13 farmland irrigation wells: Arsenic, cadmium, tin, beryllium and other metals; tetrachloride and tolulene, among other chemicals used as industrial solvents.

On one farm in Caivano, Costa said, four times the permissible level of lead was found in the irrigation well's water. Lead contamination was found in cabbages irrigated by that water but not in tomatoes, said Costa, illustrating the complexity of testing crops for toxicity. The wells are not used for drinking water.

The waste comes mainly from factories, processing plants and hospitals, trucked down from Italy's industrial north to the mobsters' power base near Naples and Caserta. Some of it was buried under a soccer field in Casal di Principe, a mob stronghold. Waste was also buried under a water-skiing pool in the town of Castel Volturno near the sea, according to Naples-based anti-Mafia Prosecutor Giovanni Conzo.

The toxic waste problem is longstanding. The national environmentalist group Legambiente says Camorra mobsters since 1991 have 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 metal drums filled with the dangerous solvents used to make paint.

"How could this all happen?" Michele Buonomo, Legambiente's Naples-area president, asked in an interview.

Franco Roberti, Italy's top organized crime fighter, said it wasn't just the Camorra profiting off the waste racket. In Italy's industrial north, factories and processing plants saved at least half of the cost of legitimate waste disposal or detoxification, and companies falsified documentation identifying the wastes' content, he said.

In the Camorra's power base, he added, town officials, dump operators or farmers with vacant land closed their eyes to the topic to get their own payoffs. Roberti said a Camorra turncoat had told him in interrogations that "monnezza" _ Neapolitan for garbage _ was, in effect, worth its weight in gold.

Investigators' first big break came in 2007. Turncoat Gaetano Vassallo from the Casalesi clan gave prosecutors a "very complete picture" about the racket, Roberti said. He told them where waste had been dumped and buried. And he indicated which companies, mainly in Italy's north, were turning to the Camorra to cart away their waste.

Vassallo's tips were borne out when investigators, using backhoes and shovels, dug into the sprawling Giugliano dump. Exhaustive analyses of soil samples by a geologist in a two-year study, whose results were made public this fall, found many of the cancer-causing or otherwise harmful substances exactly where the turncoat said Bidognetti had them dumped over several years.

Geologist Giovanni Balestri's study, commissioned by anti-Mafia prosecutors, of soil and aquifers contaminated by the dump found a laundry lists of substances similar to those discovered around the Caivano farms: Chromium, lead, nickel, sulfates, toluene and other substances _ all in concentrations higher than, and often far exceeding, permissible levels.

Italy's agriculture minister, Nunzia De Girolamo, last month hastened to assure consumers that testing of the produce is continuing "nonstop." Costa's squad is analyzing the water of each well supplied by the contaminated aquifers, a painstaking process that started this year and will take several more months to complete.

Italian farmers have scoffed at the idea that their vegetables _ a key part of the much-touted healthy Mediterranean diet _ would be bad to eat.

Domenico Della Corte held up a cauliflower as big as a bridal bouquet.

"I eat them. My sons eat them. And my grandchildren eat them," he said.

While the mob is responsible for making the mess in its own backyard _ and profiting handsomely from it _ it might be able to cash in as well on the cleanup, Conzo said.

He noted that the Camorra could use its time-tested expertise to muscle in on public contracts to detoxify the lands, once the scope of the damage becomes clear.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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