The Naples region was grappling Thursday with a chronic rubbish disposal problem, with at least 2,000 tonnes of excess garbage piled up outside dumps and in the streets.
Overburdened waste treatment centres in the impoverished southern region have been unable to handle the surplus, in a scenario that has been repeated countless times over the past decade and a half.
The daily La Repubblica described the region, with a population of some six million, as "a community that is sinking and suffocating in its own excrement."
Firefighters overnight doused 70 flaming rubbish heaps, set alight by angry area residents, the ANSA news agency reported.
For the second day in a row, defying a warning of tough action by the interior ministry, protesters blocked traffic on a main road near a condemned dump in the western Naples suburb of Pianura that authorities are trying to reopen, ANSA said.
Clandestine dumping by organised crime dubbed the "ecomafia" has forced the closure of several treatment centres.
Criminal investigators say the Camorra mafia pay truckers to haul industrial waste from factories in northern Italy for fees that undercut those of the legal trade. They bring it to illegal dumps in the Naples region made by blasting holes in mountainsides.
In Brussels, a spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the European Union was monitoring the situation, having opened an infringement case last June, when it sought a response on measures for protecting human health and the environment in the impoverished southern region.
"We are concerned about the waste issues," Barbara Helfferich told AFP on Thursday, adding that "if necessary we will take the infringement case a step further."
A "waste disposal state of emergency," first decreed for the region in 1994, has been renewed annually ever since.
"They call it an emergency, but ... the same story has been repeated for a decade now," commented leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
While Naples' Camorra mafia are well known for drug trafficking, experts say the multi-billion euro waste business is their second source of revenue, begun in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s.
The area's waste disposal problem was dramatised by a report in the British medical journal The Lancet Oncology in 2004 that identified a "triangle of death" east of Naples where toxic waste has been linked to a higher incidence of cancer, especially liver cancer.