Capri's Blue Grotto Not a 'Toilet Bowl' for Mafia

Capri's Blue Grotto Re-Oopened to Tourists, After Fears About Its 'Toxic' Water

By CLARK BENTSON

ROME, August 28, 2009 —

When a pollution scare closed one of the most visited tourist sites on the Italian island of Capri earlier this week, there were political recriminations, suspicions of organized crime involvement and environmentalist outrage.

But after all the fury, authorities have now decided that the beautiful Blue Grotto was not used as a toilet bowl for the island's waste removal issues.

Authorities allowed the giant cave to reopen Thursday after a laboratory analysis of the water determined it contained no toxic substances.

On Tuesday, three boatsmen and their passengers noticed a strong smell and a yellowish foam floating on the water inside the Grotto -- the sea cave on Capri's coastline that draws in visitors from all over the world to see its crystal clear blue water.

The fumes from the slick reportedly burned their eyes. One boat driver became nauseous and the passengers felt sick. The people were later examined by doctors, and authorities took the precaution to close the site despite the protests of other boat drivers trying to take advantage of the rush during peak tourist season.

Camorra Not to Blame, According to Authorities

Capri is located off Naples -- a city known for its waste disposal problems and the infiltration of organized crime.

Suspicions that the local mob, the Camorra, may have behind the dumping of raw sewage into the Naples Bay were reported earlier in the week, and some politicians quickly pointed the blame toward the Camorra as the cause of the pollution in the famous Capri caves.

But the authorities in Naples cleared the Camorra of involvement by Thursday evening, despite saying they still do not know what caused the fumes which were strong enough to briefly hospitalize those who came in contact with it.

"We are pursuing our inquires to establish the causes of the episode," Giovandomenico Lepore, Naples Chief Prosecutor, told the media.

Capri's Blue Grotto Cleared of Pollution Scare

Tests conducted by environmental and health officials failed to find any harmful chemicals in the water. Now, the complete absence of any toxic material has led to suspicions that the whole episode might have been a hoax.

Walter Ganapini, from the Campania Environment Council, said that it was "extremely unlikely" that any chemicals had even been in the water despite the symptoms reported by the boat passengers.

Capri and the surrounding islands have suffered from a downturn in tourism this year, and the closure of one of Capri's biggest attractions by national authorities infuriated local politicians and citizens. The mayors of the two principle towns on the island had threatened to force the reopening of the Grotto with a flotilla of small boats.

The regional Tourism Council director, aware of the damage that this kind of news could do to the island's primary source of income, was outraged that authorities moved to close the site.

"I can't imagine why this was deemed credible without anyone checking to see if it was true," asked Riccardo Marone.

The Italian Environment Minister, Stefania Prestigiacomo, said that lack of infrastructure on the island had created a "disturbing" environmental situation. Many of the homes are not connected to a sewage system. The summer population on the island creates a huge demand on the expensive trash removal process. The day after the closure of the Blue Grotto, a local restaurant owner was caught dumping rubbish into the sea near another part of island.

After the worldwide media attention of the Naples trash crisis last year and the reported toxic contamination of the water system in the area, some countries banned the imports of food products from the Naples region and tourist numbers declined. Capri officials wanted authorities to move quickly to avoid a similar situation.

Tourists Unaware of Blue Grotto's Toxic Scandal

Tourists who returned to the site Thursday afternoon after it had reopened seemed unconcerned about the mystery. Asked by local reporters what he thought, one young Australian said he hadn't heard and "it was better not to know" as he boarded the small boat for his expedition.

The entrance to the Grotta Azzurra, as it is called in Italian, is a small hole in the side of the rock face, about 6-feet in diameter. It is so low that you have to duck down to enter. Once through the choppy tunnel, tourists arrive inside a giant cave where they are bathed in a bluish light from the water, which is illuminated from below.

Capri, the main town on the island of the same name, has long been famous as a playground for the rich. During the Allied landing in Italy, American General Dwight Eisenhower set up his temporary command in a villa there which is now a luxury hotel.