Pollution turns into hot issue for Italy. Italians raise a stink after failed efforts to dump toxic waste overseas

Italy is struggling with a negative side effect from its economic boom: pollution. In a country where environmental concerns have never been foremost, a recent scandal over illegally dumped toxic wastes has generated discussions on the environment - a new topic for many Italians.

Suddenly, the Environment Ministry has become a high-profile office; oil and chemical companies boast of the billions of lire they are spending on ecology; and local townships are becoming active in defending their surroundings.

The latest lessons in environmental activism come via Nigeria and Lebanon. Some of Italy's small, burgeoning chemical companies attempted to dump approximately six metric tons of wastes - resins, varnishes, PCB-contaminated metal, to name but a few - in the two nations. Protests in both countries forced the three ships carrying the toxic cargo to return to Italy.

And Italians proved no more receptive.

One targeted port was Manfredonia, a small town on the heel of Italy's ``boot'' that also hosts a chemical factory.

Word of one ship's arrival with 2,500 tons of waste triggered a general strike, a riot in which the city hall was fire-bombed, and blockage of the nearby state-owned chemical plant. Officials from Rome shuttled back and forth to cool the situation.

Similar scenes have been played out in other ports, although without the violence.

After three months, the three ships - the Karin B, the Deep Sea Carrier, and the Zanoobia - are still anchored offshore, waiting for a port-of-call.

Authorities at two ports, Livorno and La Spezia, have agreed to accept them on a temporary basis, just to give the state a chance to catalogue their contents. But the continued failure to resolve the issue is also raising doubts about Rome's ability to muster the political will to address a growing array of environmental problems.

At least one group will be pushing the government for greater ecological protection. The Environment and Work Association, connected to the Independent Left Party, has published a list of 2,500 Italian industries, which it says are hazardous.

``We made the list not to create a scandal,'' says Massimo Riva, association president, ``but to fill a void of information unacceptable in a modern state.''

A bellwether of government's and industry's commitment to respond to this and other pollution problems will be the reduction of traffic and the application of car-emission standards.

In an effort to do this, the government imposed for the Christmas season a 110 km/hr (69 mph) speed limit on the nation's highways. And it has considered instituting an odd-even license-plate restriction for cars entering Rome.

But enforcing such laws is particularly difficult in Italy, where, often, the only rules of the road appear to be those written for the Grand Prix circuit.

Imposition of an absolute speed law - first tried this summer at 130 km/hr - is all but ignored by most drivers, who have long been accustomed to having engine size determine speed limits.

The Transport Ministry recently decided to adopt the single, lower limit after a study drew a connection between highway speeds and fatalities.

The Environment Ministry will also have its hands full tackling car emissions, a task mandated by the European Community by October 1991. A ministry study indicated that air pollution in some of Italy's largest cities is worse than that which prompted similar studies in other EC countries five years ago.

Some cities have taken it on their own to respond. Florence, for instance, has shut off its historical center to all traffic, save taxis, residents, and businesses. This month, it also started to experiment with methane-powered public buses.

It is clear, however, that the government will have to make a more far-reaching effort.

For instance, domestic oil companies have always complained that high taxes make super-leaded blends of gasoline more economical to produce and purchase. Gasoline prices in Italy are the world's highest, running at more than $4.00 per gallon. (Tax accounts for about 75 percent of the price.) The oil companies say this puts them at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of Europe - especially wih EC lead-free requirements looming on the horizon.

A solution to the toxic waste problem is just as sticky. Towns all over Italy have refused to accept ``the ships of poison,'' with some even holding referenda to ban chemical production.

But in the depressed south of the country, towns like Manfredonia are also the first to complain at the prospect of the closure of plants - chemical and otherwise - they have been trying to attract for decades.

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