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Italy and the Eco-Mafia

How billions are made through dumping toxic waste--with little public outcry

First, the pond went black. Then, the fish started to die. Finally, the authorities condemned the land. Stefano Galli sweeps a trembling hand over his poisoned acres and tells the tale of a deal too good to be true. After buying seed at a local agricultural-supply store on a spring day in 1999, the stout, 67-year old farmer from Umbria (Galli is a pseudonym) was approached in the parking lot by a sales agent who persuaded him to test a new fertilizer on his land. The deal: 550 kilograms for free, with a handshake to purchase more in the future if he was satisfied. Unbeknownst to Galli, the black mulch he then spread across his wheat, corn, and vegetable fields was highly toxic industrial waste. After the first heavy rains, fish started floating belly-up on the surface of a pond that catches runoff. "I feel my land is dying before my eyes," says Galli, who fears that the farm held by his family for generations is now worthless.

The damage spreads far beyond Galli's rolling fields. Italian magistrates confirm, based on wiretaps, that criminal groups won bids to haul off toxic waste from factories in the north but never treated the waste, as promised. Instead, they dumped their poisonous cargo on some 10,000 hectares of farmland in Umbria, one of Italy's most beautiful and productive regions. The Environment Ministry estimates the cleanup cost at $1.5 billion.