ROME—At first glance, it looks like Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano responsible for the devastation of Pompeii in 79 A.D., is erupting again. Thick black and yellow plumes of smoke are billowing from its flanks, causing a cloud of smoke to settle over Naples and spread east with the wind as far as the Adriatic Sea, hundreds of miles away.
And why wouldn’t it blow? For years, the residents who live on the sides of Vesuvius have worried that the active volcano they call home will soon erupt. Scientists have been saying it’s due, and near-constant seismic activity seems to suggest it just might blow.
But the smoke on the mountain isn’t a natural disaster; it’s a human one. Dozens of fires have been raging on Vesuvius for days, but on Tuesday several joined together to create what is edging toward a major disaster as they tear through the Camorra crime syndicate’s toxic-dump wasteland.
The area around Vesuvius is already called the land of fires, named for the illegal incinerators built by the Camorra in which they have been burning toxic waste for years in one of the most profitable rackets the mobsters run. The whole area is a health hazard with incidences of cancer higher than anywhere else in Italy.
In February of this year, eight children between the ages of 7 months and 11 years old died from cancer in a period of just 20 days. At the time of the deaths, one of the mothers of a young victim who is part of the group “Victims of the Land of Fires” led locals in a protest to try to stop the Camorra from using the territory for illegal dumping. “These victims have no peace even in death,” she said. “We are burying them in the toxic soil.”
The Camorra’s racket includes burying and burning toxic waste that medical facilities and factories need to get rid of. Over the last decade, more than 400 companies have been investigated in the area for selling their dangerous trash to the crime group rather than getting rid of it in an environmentally friendly and legal way. The waste is often discarded in makeshift dumps on Vesuvius which, when they get too full, are burned.
Italy’s Forestry Corps says some of the fires burning out of control on Vesuvius were intentionally set, likely to get rid of the toxic trash or to protest local authorities’ recent sequester of illegal construction sites. Others may have been the result of discarded cigarettes that ignited tinder that has become dry during a lingering heatwave. Over the last few days, many of these fires have connected, creating an out-of-control situation for firefighters. The largest fire is 2 kilometers long. So far hundreds of residents have been evacuated from their homes, and hotels and restaurants have been closed.
Local Archbishop Marco Ricci told ANSA news service that the situation on the mountain was getting worse.
“There is toxic waste that propagates the flames and poisons the air. The smoke is black. Behind all this is a criminal hand,” he said. “We do not sleep anymore, we have sore throats and irritated eyes. It is not fair because many of our people have already paid for this with cancer because of the the waste.”
Last year, Ricci and a local doctor went door-to-door to conduct a survey of the prevalence of cancer within the diocese of the land of fires. They found 80 percent of the people they asked had at least one cancer patient in their family. “Our study has no scientific value,” he says. “But it tells us all we need to know about the situation we live in.”