Outside of Naples, researchers have turned land polluted by illegally-dumped chemicals into a living laboratory.
GIUGLIANO — Thousands of poplars run parallel, in neat rows. The sun illuminates their thin trunks. Looking at this wood of Giugliano, in the northern outskirts of Naples, it may seem impossible that the Camorra, the local mafia, poured polluting liquid waste from tanneries here. Yet tests have revealed the presence of chromium, zinc and cadmium, a heavy metal that is highly toxic to humans even in minimal concentrations.
This area was scarred for decades by Camorra clans and is at the center of what is known in Italy as the "Land of Fires', an area notorious for garbage fires that burn along the sides of public streets, in pastures and agricultural fields, and before public monuments. Most of this burning has been attributed to Camorra clans, who have for decades used the territory for illegal dumping of chemical waste as well as for managing dumps.
But the Giugliano area is slowly coming back to life thanks to a revolutionary research project by the University of Naples Federico II. The Campania-based project is called Ecoremed and is funded by the European Commission. It was launched in 2012 as a response to a legislative gap, the result of a 2006 decree that regulates the management of waste and the reclamation of polluted sites but excluded agricultural land, which was to be regulated by a later decree. The follow-up legislation was only signed at the end of 2017 and has never come into force.
Effective and affordable
The person behind the project is Massimo Fagnano, professor of agriculture at the Federico II University. He was looking for eco-friendly remediation techniques for polluted land, such as the illegal landfills in the Campania region. In a few months, his team of approximately 100 researchers (medical doctors, geologists, engineers, biologists and chemists) developed a new method using the phytoremediation technique.
The costs? Very high.
Trees — mainly poplars and eucalyptus — are planted to neutralize heavy metals. They absorb the metals, fixing them in the wood of the trunk and the roots and preventing the contaminants from reaching the water table. It is a technique that does not involve the use of chemicals. It also contributes to a circular economy: the wood can then be used as biomass to produce energy.
In the past, two main techniques were used to clean up soil from contaminants. In some cases, the soil was removed, as far down as the contamination went, and then taken to landfill and treated as special waste. The costs? Very high. The other option was to secure the area with a sort of cement cage that would stop the passage of polluting agents through the soil, and then build on it. The costs for this technique were also high: several million euros per hectare.
2012 fire in the Land of Fires area — Source: Associazione Culturale Voce per Tutti
"Ecoremed's solution provides a sustainable, low-cost and green alternative without destroying the soil. And it provides the population with a new ecosystem," says Fagnano.
Relatively speaking, it's a bargain. Costs are 10 times lower than with traditional techniques. "Profit has nothing to do with this technique," says Antonio Di Gennaro, an agronomist involved in the project. "The application manual for this technique is free and can be downloaded from our website. We hope the technique will be used in other cases too."
Leading by example
The new approach also has to do with the diagnosis. Analyzing the results of the different soil samples, the experts found out that the agricultural land was not as contaminated as originally believed. In reality, of the 33,000 hectares that make up the Land of Fires, only 33 hectares have been sealed off — a percentage close to zero.
At the beginning, many were skeptical about Massimo Fagnano's team. Then Ecoremed became a virtuous example in the region: a green laboratory that also has a social and cultural mission. Many schools go on trips to visit the reclaimed sites. Where there was degradation and a wounded ecosystem, now there is a stronghold of legality.
This is the lesson for our children.
"We show children that the population can regain possession of territories looted by the Camorra, interrupting the chain of illegality on forgotten farmland," explains Fagnano.
Other projects related to Ecoremed have turned some illegal landfills into parks or soccer fields, green spaces that are much needed but are too often replaced by illegal construction. "The wounds that our territory has suffered over time are not curses without remedy," says Di Gennaro. "They can be treated with competence, culture, and civilization, so that nothing similar happens again. This is the lesson for our children."
Ecoremed has worked in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture of the Campania Region, with the Campania region Environmental Protection Agency (ARPAC), and with Risorsa, a small research company. The breakthrough came in May 2018, when the European Commission picked Ecoremed as one of the nine most outstanding projects in the environmental field.
Now a memorandum of understanding is being discussed with Campania's regional reforms commission to extend the model to the rest of the region.