Burning Trash, High Cancer Rates And Shadows Of Italy's Mob

In northern Italy, the city of Pavia has higher-than-average cancer rates and widespread cases of illegal garbage burning. Are these two facts just a coincidence?

Bridge and river in Pavia, Italy.
Bridge and river in Pavia, Italy.
Andrea Ballone and Fabio Poletti

PAVIA – The latest pile of burning trash was discovered in Bornasco, a town north of the city of Pavia in Italy's northern region of Lombardy. The 15,000-square-meter mountain of abandoned washing machines, discarded cars, construction material, marble headstones, fiber-cement slabs, and electronics components was just one of many housed in the empty warehouses that litter the industrial wasteland on Pavia's outskirts.

"This is an area that is ideal for trash disposal because it has low population density over a large territory," says Angela Alberici, the director of the Pavia branch of Lombardy's Regional Agency for Environmental Protection (ARPA).

Pavia is also home to one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the country. For men, it's 10% higher than the average in Lombardy and 18% higher than the national rate, according to a 2015 report by the local government health agency.

Carlo Cerra of Pavia's health protection agency, says that a regional commission entitled "Environment and Health" has been established to probe the situation. "There are 200 different types of tumors and we have too few cases in Pavia to be able to establish a causal relationship, but we are worried about the environmental impact of the fires," Cerra says.

Pavia holds another unfortunate health record: the lowest life expectancy in the country. Residents of Pavia can expect to live until 81, two years less than the national average of 83. Pollution and poor environmental conditions are believed to be decisive factors in premature deaths.

Piazza della Vittoria, Pavia — Photo: Goldmund100

There are 21 different trash disposal businesses spread across the province of Pavia. A local survey published last October revealed 30 instances of environmental violations in just one month, and that data doesn't even account for the many illegal trash disposal sites like the one found aflame in Bornasco. While some are discovered and dismantled, at least five illegal trash sites have been set on fire since last May in the towns of Mortara, Parona, Stradella, and Corteolona.

Authorities in Pavia have opened a series of investigations into the fires but have yet to name any suspects. "Burning the trash is cheaper than disposing of it, so it makes sense as a business decision," says ARPA director Alberici.

Are these illegal fires and dumping sites linked to the powerful Camorra crime syndicate?

Tons of rubbish have been piling up outside Pavia ever since China, once the world's largest importers of waste, banned foreign trash imports last year. In January, a 2,000-square-meter warehouse filled with several tons of plastic waste was set aflame in Corteolona. Trucks began carrying loads of trash to the site last September, but the owner of the land claims to know nothing about the situation.

Investigators are also focusing on the so-called "land of fire" in the southern Italian region of Campania, where the burning of toxic-waste dumps outside of Naples is also causing health problems. Italian authorities have long linked these illegal fires and dumping sites to the powerful Camorra crime syndicate.

"We have to work harder on prevention because this is an area susceptible to organized crime," says Attilio Visconti, prefect of Pavia.

The local prefecture, a branch of the national government's Interior Ministry dedicated to public security, asked all of the province's 130 towns to submit a list of abandoned sites that could be used as clandestine trash dumps. The final list included 169 different sites that will now be investigated by the police and mapped with the help of drones.

"After every inspection of a site we must alert the public prosecutor's office, and we almost always find an irregularity," says Alberici. "The European directive that sets clear liabilities for the managers of rubbish dumps is widely disregarded."

Italy's parliament has launched a commission to investigate the fires, publishing a report in January entitled "The phenomenon of fires in rubbish disposal and treatment sites." One chapter is dedicated to a fire last September at the dump in Mortara, a routinely monitored site owned by a well-known trash disposal firm. The report found that three days after the fire, the concentration of toxic compounds in the air had risen far beyond acceptable health levels.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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