By Christopher Livesay
In the small town of Calvi Risorta, sanitation workers - armed with Geiger meters and dressed in protective suits - began last Friday to exhume 2 million cubic meters of dangerous substances, including containers of flammable solvents that have colored the floor pink and blue.
Calling the site an ecological "slaughterhouse", Italian Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti announced that it would take at least a month to carry out the initial cleanup to assess the possible risk of radioactivity.
"We don't know the amount of waste, or even what it might be," Galletti said.
Forest controllers have begun examining the 250,000 square meters of land, after rumors of chemicals being hidden underground prompted journalists to begin investigating. Salvatore Minieri, from the digital daily paesenews.com, had compared aerial photos of the site taken in 1960 with images captured using a recently drone. After locating the appearance of small mounds of earth, he and his camera began to excavate.
"It is a layer of toxic industrial products on top of each other, separated by cement and with only a few inches of soil to cover the entire surface," Minieri told VICE News. "It has been here for decades. Unfortunately, it has become the largest illegal dumping of industrial waste on the continent."
He and the police believe that the Casalesi clan - the Camorra's most famous clan - is behind this case. In 2006, life within the band was the subject of the best-selling book Gomorra, by Neapolitan author Roberto Saviano (under police protection since the book was published).
Suspicions about the Casalesi clan's involvement in the illegal dumps business appeared in 1997, when Carmine Schiavone, a repentant, explained the methods to the police - claiming that this lucrative activity has been going on since the 1980s.
The discovery of several spills following the Schiavone revelations has led the region from Naples to Caserta to earn the sad nickname of terra dei fuochi - the land of fire. The mafia has a habit of setting fire to waste, thus releasing large amounts of toxins into the air.
"This is the Italian Chernobyl," Ciafani Stefano, vice president of the environmental organization Legambiente, told VICE News. He said the region's cancer rate is 80 percent higher than the national average.
"This has killed thousands of people so far and it is going to kill thousands more," Ciafani explains.
Legambiente estimates that 10 billion tons of waste have been illegally buried in the region since 1992, allowing the mafia to enrich itself. In 2013, the "environmental crimes" of the mafia helped raise more than 17 billion euros.
The Camorra, made up of 350 clans, has gone to great lengths to take control of the illegal waste storage business. By infiltrating local health departments, the criminal group obstructs legal waste treatment avenues, leading to legal landfills to chronic overcrowding. In this way the demand for their illegal solutions increases. As a result, the streets of Naples are constantly overflowing with garbage. In recent years, the problem has spread to the capital, Rome.
But organized crime is not solely responsible, according to experts. Sometimes factories, most of which are located in the industrial north of Italy, contact the mafia knowing that they will dispose of their waste cheaply.
Companies sometimes bypass the mafia and dispose of their garbage themselves, says Anna Sergi, an expert on organized crime at the University of West London.
"This business is so lucrative that it attracts white-collar criminals who act on behalf of non-criminal companies," Sergi told VICE News. "The objective is always profit, whether taking an active part in the waste discharge activity or ignoring the rules on the lawful treatment of waste."
Italy's inability to find a solution to this problem ends up costing the country dearly.
In December, the European Court of Justice imposed a fine of 40 million euros for the continued violation of the laws governing waste management in the EU.
"218 locations do not comply", according to the record of the judicial decision. 16 of these sites also contained toxic residues.
This is the third time that the Court has imposed a fine on Italy in less than 10 years. The country seems to refuse to apply sustainable waste management techniques, such as incinerators that convert garbage into energy (common in northern Europe). Italy is at the bottom of Europe, especially because of the mafia that protects its sources of income. "It is their interest to hinder change," says Sergi.
The mafia could even go as far as infiltrating the Italian government to control the waste treatment business. An activity that can take you away from the shores of the Mediterranean.
In 1994, Italian journalist Ilaria Alpi and Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin were killed at the wheel of their jeep by a commando in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
A book published in 1999 hypothesizes that the two died because they were about to reveal an international trafficking in arms and toxic waste that would implicate political and military figures in Italy and Somalia.
A former mobster confirmed this hypothesis in 2009. He said they died because they had seen the toxic waste being shipped to Somalia by boat by ‘Ndrangheta, the powerful criminal organization based in Calabria, in southern Italy.
In Italy, residents living next to the Calvi Risorta landfill hope that stricter laws will help reverse the trend of toxic waste.
Last month, Italy passed a law that allows for prison sentences for illegal dumping of garbage. "Previously, the culprits were constantly reoffending, their only risk was to receive a small slap," said Ciafani of the Legambiente group. "Maybe now they will think twice."
The Campanie Forest Police announced that it will identify the culprits by analyzing the provenance of the buried materials - some of which come from many European countries.
The situation is already catastrophic, so it will take decades to see any effect on the ecology and health of the locals. Legambiente declares that the rivers and streams around Naples are so polluted that they will be unfit for health until at least 2080.
"Everybody knows someone with cancer here," said Minieri, who lives 5 kilometers from the landfill. "Six years ago my cousin died of a liver tumor. He was 44 years old. At that time, no one had ever paid attention to this huge underground landfill - even politicians didn't know it existed, or at least pretended not to know ".