Q&A: "We Are Pushing Like Hell" (extended)

Green Party European Parliament member Monica Frassoni, 39, is leading the drive for tougher laws against ecological crimes in the European Union, including trafficking in toxic waste and illegal dumping. A representative at the European Parliament since 1990 and co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance coalition, the Brescia native spoke with Rome Bureau Chief Gail Edmondson.

Q: Why has it been so difficult for authorities to combat the illegal business of trafficking in toxic waste in Italy?

A: There are three reasons. First, there is a very low level of public consciousness about how bad these eco-crimes are. Italy, like most Mediterranean countries, has only begun recently to develop an awareness of the environment. Waste traditionally has been dumped anywhere -- it was not considered particularly dangerous.

Proper waste-management policy was introduced in Italy through the European Union. Some 80% of Italy's environmental law stems from its obligation as an EU member. Add to that a very low level of sanctions and the tight control of public authorities in Southern Italy by criminal networks, and you get the picture of why waste trafficking is hard to fight.

Q: How does Italy compare to other member countries in implementing EU environmental law?

A: Italy is lagging. Dumping toxic waste is not a felony in Italy. In March, 2001, under the previous center-left government, a new law against trafficking was passed. But in the meantime, the current [center-right] government has decriminalized some environmental actions and redefined certain categories of material as nonwaste. That has prompted the European Commission to undertake infraction procedures against Italy, which could result in a court case. Waste has clear definitions under EU law that can't be changed by national governments.

Q: What is the bigger problem in cracking down on waste trafficking: Industrial lobbies that don't want to pay more for waste disposal, or organized crime, which infiltrates public administration and intimidates authorities from taking action?

A: The criminal element is the bigger problem.

Q: Should the EU intervene?

A: At the EU level are two pieces of legislation under scrutiny on eco-crime. We are very hopeful it will be possible to implement them. The European Commission is more effective than the national authorities in this matter. The nearer you are to national and local levels of government, the more difficult it is to resist industrial lobbies. If the EU sets up minimum standards and penalties, it will be easier to resist industrial lobbies.

Q: What's the status of the legislation?

A: The proposal from spring 2002 making waste trafficking a felony with uniform criminal sanctions under EU law is still blocked in the council because EU member states prefer to deal with all criminal sanctions on a national level. There is a very big resistance on the part of justice ministers to develop common legislation. They argue that criminal sanctions are a national prerogative, so they are refusing to vote.

If they don't take a stand, the European Commission will take the member states to the European Court of Justice because it is illegal to stall and avoid taking a stand on proposed legislation.

Q: What's your response to that argument? Why does the EU need to take action on eco-crimes?

A: Most environmental legislation regarding waste has been made at the EU level. If you look at implementation, there is wide variation. Italy is among the worst at implementing environmental law. Since we cannot pursue traffickers and those who pollute without criminal sanctions, we need EU legislation.

Q: How many cases of infractions against EU environmental law has Italy racked up?

A: Hundreds of them. Not only are EU environmental directives not implemented in Italy, the government is now decriminalizing and issuing pardons for many crimes. This is really bad.

Q: Is the EU concerned about the 300,000 tons of highly toxic waste that government officials in Italy say "goes missing" every year into the hands of the eco-mafia?

A: We are very concerned, but the problem is the Commission has no police force. We rely completely on national law enforcement. The environmental unit of national police forces is often the weakest and worst- equipped. The priority given on a national level to fighting eco-crimes is very low. EU legislation often requires countries to reach a certain goal within three to four years, such as conditions regarding landfill sites or numbers of waste incinerators.

Ultimately, if the requirements are not met, the EU can take a country to court. But it's a slow process. The Council did agree in Tampere that the EU has to become active in the area of ecological crime and waste trafficking.

Q: What is the Green Party doing at a European level in this regard?

A: We are pushing like hell. We are not big, but on environmental issues, we are heard. In waste management there is a big reception to our arguments since this is one of the topics where we have great knowledge and credibility. But it's an ongoing fight. We are very vocal about the eco-Mafia. The only groups really supporting us locally are nongovernmental organizations.

And in Italy, the Greens are very weak -- they only have 2% to 3% in Parliament. When you have right-wing governments in local administration, there is a problem of collusion between political parties and the local authorities. It is extremely difficult on waste questions to break this collusion.

Q: What steps need to be taken to fight the eco-Mafia in Italy?

A: There should be tighter controls and much greater sanctions [for polluting]. The laws are there on waste management, but no one checks. It's all a question of resources.

Q: Does waste trafficking occur elsewhere in Europe?

A: Yes, there have even been cases in Belgium. The difference is the involvement of the Mafia. The moment you have a criminal network involved, it's much more difficult to combat. They exert so much power on local and regional authorities. They obstruct the passing of legislation and the enforcement of law.

Q: Why aren't Italians more worried about the health consequences of poisoned land or water?

A: You only get this kind of reaction at a very local level near the dump -- or maybe from a mayor. There's no national reverberation of concern. And there's very little information. Newspaper stories on eco-crimes appear one day, and then there's no follow-up. It has to do with the quality of the press.

Q: Why haven't more epidemiological studies been done to test water and agricultural products for industrial toxins?

A: There's a problem with the infrastructure for a massive, nationwide testing.

Q: What are Italy's Green politicians doing to fight the eco-Mafia?

A: In Italy, the problem is we are not in government. At local and regional levels, our people run up against the same problems as the magistrates. They have no instruments and no resources, and they are immediately confronted [in certain regions] with organized crime. It's a desperate situation.

Italy is extremely decentralized, and the situation varies from North to South. Brescia's waste-management policies compare well with Norway, with very advanced waste incinerators that recycle the heat produced. But Calabria is a disaster. The situation of controlling and enforcing the law in Italy is extreme.

Q: Are you optimistic or pessimistic for the battle against eco-crimes in Europe?

A: I'm not that pessimistic at the EU level. I'm very pessimistic for Italy. There is no backing to fight eco-crimes at national level, and the center-right government is now issuing pardons for all kinds of crimes.

Q: Is there any hope of change?

A: It's not impossible. Italy can change. You need a big assist from tougher laws, more resources, and much bigger political and public awareness. Law can motivate industry not to behave the way it behaves now. There's just such a low level of awareness and a low level of public outrage and frustration.

We still have to raise awareness. To do that, we're organizing a presentation of the Italian case, concentrating on all the environmental disasters in the country. We'll do this in June, just as Italy takes over the EU presidency, to have the greatest public impact.

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