EU says Italy may face fines over Naples rubbish

ROME (Reuters) - Italy has failed to comply with a European court ruling on the chronic Naples garbage crisis and could face fines if it does not solve the problem, a top EU official said on Friday.

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Thousands of tones of garbage still lie uncollected in the streets of Italy’s third-largest city despite weeks of protests by local residents and repeated claims by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to have fixed the problem.

European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said he had received a statement from inspectors who visited Naples and the surrounding region of Campania this week which suggested the problem would take years to bring under control. “The report confirms that the measures needed to execute the ruling issued by the European Court of Justice in March are not yet in place,” he said in a statement, adding that the threat to health would continue without a proper waste management plan.

“This would oblige the Commission to eventually return to the Court, with the likely outcome being the imposition of fines,” he said.

Berlusconi has dismissed accusations that he has mismanaged the crisis, laying the blame on local authorities and the center-left mayor of Naples but the issue has added to the problems facing his struggling government.

At a news conference in Naples late on Friday Berlusconi said he was confident that the streets of Naples would be cleared of rubbish “in less than two weeks.”

Asked about the risk of EU fines, he said his conservative government would “effectively oppose this eventuality and I hope we can nullify it.”

The problem of poor waste management in Italy’s most densely populated region has persisted for years, compounded by a mix of inefficiency and disputes between competing local authorities and made worse by the influence of organized crime.

Failure to solve the issue contributed heavily to the defeat of the former center-left prime minister Romano Prodi and Berlusconi often cites clearing Naples of rubbish when he came to power in 2008 as one of his government’s chief achievements.

Heavy rain in recent days has reduced the garbage in some places to a sodden, leaking mass raising growing fears of a serious health threat.

Rubbish dumps are full to overflowing but local residents have protested against opening new landfills which they say create an unbearable stench and attract illegal dumping, while plans for new incinerators have been repeatedly delayed.

Potocnik said that to avoid fines, authorities would have to comply with EU environmental law, boost waste recycling, improve collection and make plans to dispose of nearly 8 million tones of baled waste deposited in local storage sites.

“It is of paramount importance that all the competent authorities and all the political parties in Campania act consistently in order to ensure the quick adoption of this plan and its actual implementation, which must be secured by allocating the necessary resources,” he said.

Writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Myra MacDonald