SAN GIORGIO A CREMANO, Italy, Jan. 10, 2008 -- The main street in San Giorgio a Cremano wraps around the base of Mount Vesuvius, a volcano that occasionally rumbles to life sprinkling Naples and other small communities like San Giorgio with volcanic dust.
But it's not ash that covers these towns now. It's trash. Tons of smelly trash have been left in large piles every 100 yards or so in populated areas.
"What mamma would stop here to buy my fruit in front of this pile of rubbish? The smell is disgusting," said Nicola Esposito, a produce vendor in San Giorgio. "Everyone is getting sick."
Esposito blames the national and local governments for allowing the crisis to be an ongoing problem that has troubled this part of Southern Italy for decades.
"When [Regional President Antonio] Bassolino canvassed here for votes last time, he promised a golf course, but when he got elected he opened a rubbish dump on the site instead," Esposito said angrily.
For years the local government has been unable to get all sides to agree on a plan of action. The opening of new dumps is opposed by many residents. The building of new incinerators has been hampered by environmentalists. Unable to get a consensus for a long-term plan, the government has leapt from one crisis to another resolving the problem with only temporary measures.
It is the presence of dumps in the region that are full to the brim that has continuously sparked the recurring protests. The residents believe that Campania's cancer rates — which are higher than other parts of Italy — are directly related to the trash.
Allegations that the Mafia, known locally as the Camorra, is actively involved in illicit waste removal are being investigated. They reportedly have illegally disposed of toxic waste polluting the land and water supply. The rubbish collection industry is an $8.6 million industry. According to some convicted mobsters that have "sung" to the authorities, the Camorra has switched from pushing drugs to disposing of trash because it is more lucrative.
Maria Ferrara, one of the few that stopped to buy fruit from Esposito that day, attributes the cancer deaths of her parents to the pollution given off from these dumps.
Another customer, who declined to be identified, chimed in that her parents and 38-year-old sister also died of cancer. "Nobody is helping us. When there are disasters in other parts of the country they do something; but not when it is in Naples," she told ABC News.
Prime Minister Romano Prodi did announce an action plan this week, including naming a "trash tsar" and the immediate transportation of waste to Sardinia and even to as far away as Germany. But despite the initiative and the presence of the army, which was called in to collect the rotting waste, there was little evidence in the town of any improvement.
The school in San Giorgio is open, but Maria from the fruit stand (she would only give her first name) doesn't force her son to attend because she is worried for his health. The smell is truly sickening and the piles have attracted rats and mice.
Residents have taken to the barricades to keep the dumps from being further stuffed with rubbish, and protested in front of local government offices about the delays in building long promised incinerators. Fed up, many have become midnight arsonists, dousing the stinking piles with petrol and setting them on fire.
Commandant Aldo Sabatino, the fire chief for the city of Caserta, has had to double the number of firefighters on shifts to deal with the arsonists.
At the height of the problem there were as many as 60 fires a night in Caserta and as many as 20 a day.
Even his own fire headquarters has become a dumping ground; long lines of putrid food, Christmas wrappings and scores of plastic bags surround his building. His office smells like the inside of a trash can.
Sabatino hopes the new measures announced by the Prodi government will solve the problem, "but, it will take time," he reminds people.
Ugo, an 84-year-old resident of Caserta, knows that there is no quick fix. "It goes back 20 years," he said. "They should have built the incinerators then."
To those living knee deep in garbage and trying to run businesses where their customers have to fend through trash to get in the door there is little optimism too.
"The constant smell is depressing," Rosa Paresi lamented, while waiting for customers in her pastry shop. Outside the door huge piles of different colored trash bags are piled up on top of the burnt remains from earlier arson fires. She is worried about the economic crisis this is causing, and frets that tourists will stay away.
Not every square inch of the sidewalks are covered with waste. Most are piled in front of businesses or down side streets. It is estimated that more than 100,000 tons of rubbish lies uncollected. While health issues are a constant concern, the effect on residents to date is still mostly psychological rather than economic. "People feel demoralized," said Paresi.
But Esposito thinks the pollution is taking a daily toll. The soil is polluted and you can taste it in the fruit, he says. And tourism, a big staple of the Campania region, which includes the Amalfi coast and Pompei, is threatened.
"Naples is now known as the city of garbage," Esposito said with a sigh.