Italy's "trash tsar" takes charge

NAPLES (Reuters) - A government-appointed “trash tsar” took charge of a waste crisis in Naples on Wednesday after residents sealed off a suburb with barricades to stop it becoming a dumping ground for mountains of garbage.

Police in riot helmets form a line near garbage burning on a street in Naples January 8, 2008. REUTERS/Salvatore Esposito/Agnfoto

Images of the historic port city wallowing in its own filth have shocked Italians and embarrassed the ruling centre-left coalition of Prime Minister Romano Prodi, which also holds office at the local and regional level in Naples.

Gianni De Gennaro, a former national police chief, arrived in town with a four-month mandate from the government to solve the waste pile-up. Refuse collection came to a halt as waste dumps in the region were declared full at the end of last year.

“We will accomplish the task that the government has set up with the utmost effort,” the 59-year-old former police chief told a news conference.

Prodi hopes De Gennaro will succeed where a succession of other waste commissioners have failed. The first was appointed in 1994 to clean up waste disposal in the Naples region and take it out of the hands of the local mafia, the Camorra.

Fourteen years and 2 billion euros ($2.94 billion) of public money later, the city is still searching for a solution. A huge incinerator supposed to open at the end of 2007 may not come on line until 2009.

Authorities want to reopen a dump in the suburb of Pianura, which has been closed for 11 years, to take the estimated 110,000 tons of garbage rotting in the streets and in the surrounding region.


But locals declared the suburb a no-go area for garbage trucks and it has been blocked to traffic since Saturday.

The area looks like a war zone, with improvised barriers manned during the day by peaceful locals and at night by gangs of youths who regularly clash with police, two of whom were injured on Tuesday evening.

“It’s worse than Kabul,” Gianfranco Fini, leader of the right-wing National Alliance party, said on a visit on Tuesday.

A few trucks were allowed into the suburb on Wednesday to deliver food to shops but many schools remained closed.

Around 10,000 people marched through the centre of Naples in the late afternoon to protest against the plan to reopen the Pianura waste dump which they say is unsafe.

Some protesters picked up trash bags from piles in the street and dumped them in front of local authority offices.

“It’s disastrous what the politicians have done,” said 70-year-old Pianura resident Vincenzo Lanzara. “What should they do? The first thing they should do is be ashamed of themselves.”

De Gennaro faces some tough choices on where to put the trash that is building up day by day. He refused to tell reporters whether or not he would force open the Pianura site -- a move which could spark more street violence.

Residents blame the crisis on ineffective and corrupt politicians and businesses, and on gangland criminals who make fortunes out of waste transport and illegal disposal.

Prodi said a short-term solution would be to truck Naples’ waste to other parts of the country, a policy which would be resented by some in the rich north. Long-term, the region will have three incinerators, he said.

Illegal dumping and burning is blamed for poisoning the soil, water and air of large zones around the base of Mount Vesuvius and causing high instances of some forms of cancer.

Editing by Elizabeth Piper