Berlusconi pledges to end Naples waste crisis
NAPLES, Italy |
NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged a swift end to the Naples garbage crisis on Friday as images in the media of piles of rubbish and angry protests put his struggling government under pressure.
At least 20 police officers were injured on Thursday and there was further violence overnight as the chronic problem of waste disposal in Italy's third largest city flared into violence for another night.
Hundreds of tonnes of garbage lie uncollected in the streets after a dispute erupted over a new dump near the town of Terzigno, near Naples, where the existing facility is full and where residents complain about the stench and toxic waste.
Berlusconi promised to spend 14 million euros (12.4 million pounds) to upgrade the dump at Terzigno and he said there was no threat to public health from the site which has been at the centre of the crisis.
"We expect that within 10 days the situation in Terzigno can return to normal," he told a news conference in Rome after an emergency meeting with ministers, the regional governor and the head of the Civil Protection Agency.
The latest outbreak is an embarrassment for Berlusconi, who has often cited clearing Naples' streets shortly after he came to power in 2008 as one of his government's main achievements.
"Naples is no good. We are drowning in garbage again. They have to open the new dump but they need to do it far from the houses, because rubbish spreads disease," an 80-year-old woman, who gave her name as Assunta, told Reuters.
Not all the protests have been violent, but overnight police faced around 2,000 demonstrators who threw stones, marbles and firecrackers and used trees to block the dump near Terzigno, located in a national park at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.
"This feels like Beirut," said Michele Amoruso, a 41-year-old tax lawyer who was protesting against setting up a new dump in the park, where the picturesque views contrasted with the rubbish strewn about.
The clashes were only the latest episode in a crisis that has persisted for years and which in 2008 prompted the then newly elected Berlusconi to declare a national disaster.
Organised crime interests have been deeply entwined with rubbish collection in Naples for many years. But the problem has been aggravated by inefficiency, political opportunism and unscrupulous business operators.
With news bulletins and newspaper headlines dominated by images of burning cars and police in riot gear, the issue has become a major problem for the government, already dogged by internal divisions and sliding approval ratings.
In Brussels, a spokesman for the European Commission, which has taken legal action to force Italy to solve the crisis, said it was studying the response it had received from Rome.
"The infringement procedures are ongoing," spokesman Joe Hennon told journalists. "Italian authorities need to draw up a plan to manage rubbish in the region."
Near Terzigno, the mood was bitter among protestors who held up anti-government signs including one reading "Berlusconi, you have lost the South!" or "We are breathing poison."
Berlusconi lays the blame for the crisis squarely at the feet of the centre-left mayor of Naples, Rosa Russo Iervolino.
But a complex web of overlapping political authorities in the southern region of Campania, the most densely populated in Italy, has hindered any solution to the problem.
Local authorities say a dispute with a waste contractor has aggravated recent problems and individual local authorities have refused to take waste overflows from neighbouring areas, heightening the sense of frustration.
The anger of Terzigno residents has been compounded by repeated changes of policy, with plans for a new dump announced, cancelled and then re-confirmed on different occasions, while concerns over health have grown.
A 2004 report from Italy's National Research Council said rates of liver cancer among people in the area were 2-3 times higher than the Italian average, due to illegal waste dumps and burning that has polluted water, soil and air.
Stefano Caldoro, governor of Campania, said the policy changes had not helped but that a decision had now been taken to open a modern, safe and clean waste disposal facility at Terzigno that would pose no risk to health and safety.
"I understand their fears but they have to believe what we tell them," he told the daily La Repubblica. "Now there is a firm line. There are no alternatives. We're going with Terzigno, but with full guarantees."
(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte in Rome and Luke Baker in Brussels)
(Writing by James Mackenzie, editing by Mark Heinrich)
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