Berlusconi Struggles to End Naples Garbage Mess Before Key Vote

Berlusconi Struggles to End Naples Garbage Mess
An Italian army soldier wearing a protective suit disinfects and removes waste in Quarto, a suburb of Naples. Photographer: Carlos Hermann/AFP/Getty Images

Tons of trash are piling up in the streets of Naples, leaving Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi racing to sort out the mess before Dec. 14 confidence votes in parliament that may topple his government.

Berlusconi, who won re-election in 2008 after vowing to end the trash crisis in the Italian port city, yesterday reiterated promises to solve the current emergency before lawmakers decide the fate of his conservative coalition. European Union inspectors last month warned it may take “several years” to permanently resolve the garbage issue.

“He didn’t keep his promise” in 2008, said Loredana Velona, a 45-year-old medical analyst in Naples. “It was easy to collect the trash and send it off to other cities, anyone could have done that. The hard part is solving the problem by building incinerators.”

Berlusconi, 74, is fighting for his political life against Gianfranco Fini, a former ally who now leads the challenge to the premier’s government. The turmoil has buffeted declines in its debt, with investors demanding 158 extra basis points of yield to hold Italian 10-year bonds relative to German bunds. The spread reached a euro-era high of 210 basis points Nov. 30.

Naples has suffered periodic garbage emergencies since the mid-1990s as landfills overflowed and authorities were slow to build more dumps and incinerators. The situation has sparked protests by residents and encouraged organized crime to seek temporary contracts to remove the garbage, according to Legambiente, an environmental group.

“I was once again able to note how the Naples problem damages Italy’s good name and image on the international scene,” Berlusconi, who’s traveled to Naples twice over the last month, said in an e-mailed note yesterday after returning from a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said he was confident that “the emergency will be resolved as soon as possible.”

Vesuvius Dump

The latest controversy arose in early October when residents of nearby Terzigno protested plans to expand dumping of trash at a site outside their town. Television networks broadcast violent skirmishes between police and residents, who tossed Molotov cocktails and torched trash-collection trucks. Scores were injured and newspapers, including Corriere della Sera, estimated damages at more than 20 million euros.

The Naples garbage situation is another “factor that exacerbates” Italy’s political mess, said Raffaele De Mucci, a professor of political science at Luiss Universtiy in Rome. “It proves that wild promises don’t pay if you can’t keep them.”

While tensions in Terzigno eased after the government agreed to take over management of a garbage dump on Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption more than 2,000 years ago destroyed ancient Pompeii, they soon flared in Naples.

Local Mafia

Trash began piling up in the streets of the city where the Camorra, the local mafia, “has a hand in every vital organ of the economy,” according to Michele Buonomo, president of Legambiente in the region of Campania, whose capital is Naples.

“The dumps in Campania can’t take all the trash from Naples,” he said in an interview. “Of 2,000 tons of trash produced per day in Naples, 600 tons can’t find a place to be dumped. This is our problem.”

Various governments have failed to resolve the situation after assuming responsibility for waste disposal in Naples more than 15 year ago. Berlusconi’s current government relinquished that role at the end of 2009 and oversight of trash collection was given last month to regional authorities.

30,000 Tons

At the peak of the 2008 outbreak, authorities estimated that there were 30,000 tons of trash in the streets of Naples and the surrounding region. To remove it, Berlusconi adopted emergency measures that included transporting by train some of the trash for disposal in other regions as well as in Germany, and making it a crime to block garbage from entering dumpsites.

“Berlusconi’s plan two years ago was built on a fragile foundation,” said Paolo Giacomelli, a Naples city official who oversees garbage collection. “It blew up on him because citizens of Terzigno complained about how the dump was being managed.”

The shortage of landfill space won’t be completely resolved for three to four years when two new incinerators come on line, Berlusconi said on Nov. 26 at a Naples press conference.

“It will still take several years to set up the infrastructure needed to ensure that all the waste produced in Campania -- 7,200 tons per day -- is adequately managed and to prevent further waste crises,” EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a Nov. 26 statement.

He said that “the danger to human health and damage to the environment” from the waste “will continue.”

Berlusconi has blamed local officials for the latest mess, saying they failed to assume responsibility for the issue when the central government pulled out. Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Jervolino, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, declined to comment, her spokesman said.

“After K2, after Mont Blanc, after Everest, there’s the Naples trash mountain -- the tallest one of all,” said Alfredo Fedele, 65, a Naples pensioner. “Two years on, we’re still in a state of emergency.”

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