Commentary: So Much Mess, So Little Outrage

By Gail Edmondson

Driving past fertile fields along the coast north of Naples, an Italian journalist gives two foreign colleagues a tour of one of the country's most polluted regions--the endpoint for toxic-waste traffickers who have dumped their poisonous cargo by the thousands of tons near towns and farms. We stroll around man-made lakes excavated by criminals to bury barrels of sludge, which has oozed into the groundwater and poisoned at least 27 wells. Several rusting barrels can be seen, but the lakes' calm surfaces tell no tales.

Neither do the local authorities. We ask for data from tests conducted five years ago, but an uncomfortable silence ensues. "We're not really sure. It was a windy day when the tests were done. The lakes are very deep. It was hard to measure the level of pollution," demurs one. No additional testing was done? "Perhaps there was a lack of resources." At each question, a common refrain is: "Ask the prosecutor." Our journalist guide, who once helped expose the illegal dumping, tells us he received coded threats to keep silent. He now covers tourism.

Enter the world of environmental disaster in Italy, and you encounter a world of fear and silence. Just as Mafia murders in full daylight on crowded streets often produce no witnesses, tons of toxic waste dumped openly in Italy's southern regions produce little national outcry. Ask public authorities, and the pollution data on samples of water or soil quality are often, well, nonexistent. "Much more must be done," says Roberto Caracciolo, director of environmental controls at the National Association for Protection of the Environment in Rome.

Plenty is actually known about the dirty business of waste trafficking. In the past five years, two government commissions have investigated illegal waste management, producing more than 200,000 pages of reports. But the impact of their efforts on policy has been minimal. Prosecutors, law-enforcement officials, and even ex-commission members deliver a harsh verdict: The government lacks the political will to fight the eco-Mafia. "The regional agencies responsible for controls are understaffed and underequipped. Existing legislation is not properly enforced," says Roberto Ferrigno, EU policy director at the European Environmental Bureau in Brussels.

Italy urgently needs tougher laws and resources to police industry and pursue polluters. Its news media must alert the public to environmental dangers. The country is behind in implementing hundreds of EU environmental regulations and norms. Magistrates and police also bemoan Rome's opposition to a European Parliament drive to criminalize waste trafficking and dumping--a move that would allow international collaboration and expedite probes. "Italy doesn't want to move forward because it goes against industrial interests," says one discouraged prosecutor.

Citizen action could help kick start change. Italians aware of polluted sites where the government has failed to test for toxins can get in touch with the EU's Environmental Directorate in Brussels. Armed with such information, EU officials can launch an investigation and, if negligence is not addressed, bring Italy to the European Court of Justice for violating EU law. Slow and cumbersome? Of course. But public outcry may be the only way to force Italy's political class to wake up and defend the environment--before the damage gets any worse.

Rome Bureau Chief Edmondson covers Italian business and politics.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.