NAPLES, Italy – Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday that he will deploy the military to protect trash dumps around Naples as he pledged to remove tons of stinking garbage from its streets and to restore the city's image.
Berlusconi has long said the garbage emergency in Naples was his top priority, and by holding Wednesday's Cabinet meeting in this city he upheld a promise he had made before the election that swept him to power last month.
"We are convinced this will bring new life to Naples. The dream would be to see Naples blossom again," he said.
The premier said the army would be called in to guard dump sites and promised stiff measures for anyone caught trespassing or blocking refuse collection, including up to one year of jail time. Previous attempts to open dumps have been hampered by the protests of residents worried by health risks.
Berlusconi refused to identify the sites, on the ground that he wanted to avoid immediate protests, but said they would be disclosed in coming days and that they are spread across the Campania region that surrounds Naples. The entire area is plagued by uncollected trash.
The plan also includes resuming construction of an incinerator and having it operating by the end of the year. More incinerators in the region will be built in coming years, he said.
"I'm in Naples to say that the state is here and it is acting — not tomorrow, but now," Berlusconi said. He insisted time has run out, and vowed that he would clean up the city and the region "in a very short term."
He estimated, however, that it would take 2 1/2 years for the region to be able to handle its garbage without creating further emergencies.
Berlusconi put a veteran official, Guido Bertolaso, in charge of the emergency. Bertolaso, the head of the Civil Protection Department, has been Italy's pointman for emergencies or major events for two decades, including preparations for the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
The crisis began in December when garbage collectors stopped picking up trash because many dumps were full. It is a recurring problem — the result of years of bad government, the residents' protests and, officials say, mob infiltration.
This time, the situation has spiraled out of control in Naples, a city of more than 1 million people.
Piles of garbage have been blocking sidewalks and streets in Naples and its suburbs, forcing residents to wade through knee-high trash. The stench is prompting some residents to stay inside and others to wear masks. Some have taken to burning rubbish and knocking over refuse bins and have hurled stones at firefighters trying to put out blazing trash.
Ahead of Wednesday's meeting, the city's center and other areas were cleaned up of the trash. But some 3,000 tons remained to be picked up in Naples and an estimated 50,000 tons in Campania.
For years now, "every month, we've needed the equivalent of four soccer stadiums just to stock the trash," said Marco Demarco, the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Corriere del Mezzogiorno.
Berlusconi's plan for Naples puts the Neapolitans' trust in the government to test after years of bad management, unfulfilled promises and health worries.
Earlier this year, higher-than-permitted levels of dioxin were found in the region's prized buffalo mozzarella. Although no direct link with the garbage crisis was established, the scare cost producers millions of dollars and dealt a further blow to the nation's image.
Recently, the Naples Doctors Association has expressed alarm over the potential for disease from mice, cockroaches and other insects thriving in the mountains of garbage. And the risks are bound to rise with the hot weather.
A few thousand people, from environmentalists to immigrants to unemployed youths, demonstrated peacefully against the government as Wednesday's Cabinet meeting was being held.
Other residents witnessed the arrival of Berlusconi and his ministers with a characteristic blend of fatalism, sarcasm — and a measure of skepticism.
"I'm resigned to the fact I have to put my trust in this government. I'm left with having to believe in it, this city is on the brink of collapse," said 32-year-old resident Marco Ottaiano, walking near the site of the meeting.