Rome, December 3 - The Italian government on Tuesday passed a decree against waste burning in an "unprecedented response" to growing illegal garbage-management practices which have plagued in particular the southern Campania region, Premier Enrico Letta said.
Under the measure, burning rubbish without authorization becomes a crime.
The decree also introduces tougher controls on agricultural land, where waste is often illegally dumped, which will be reportedly checked and fenced in the next 150 days. The measure becomes immediately effective though it needs to be approved by both houses of parliament to be converted into law.
Illegal dumping sites containing toxic waste and waste burning in the southern Campania region and the area between Naples and Caserta - which has been dubbed the "Land of Fires", the same name as the decree - have led to serious health warnings but earlier attempts to tackle the problem have been hampered by the local mafia.
The Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the mafia, has long infiltrated every part of the rubbish collection industry and has raked in huge profits.
"Preserving the environment equals fighting organized crime", tweeted Environment Minister Andrea Orlando on Tuesday.
The decree provides, among other things, for harsh penalties for those found guilty of burning waste and allocates an additional 600 million euros to the 300 million already granted to Campania to clear land used for illegal rubbish dumps.
Levels of toxicity in the soil of land used for farming will be tested under the measure.
Italian farmers' confederation CIA welcomed the decree, stressing that the waste crisis has led to a 35% to 40% drop in sales of typical food products from Campania, like buffalo mozzarella cheese, fruit and vegetables, with annual losses for the regional food sector estimated at around 5 billion euros.
The Campania region is Italy's third-largest agricultural producer with over 136,000 farms.
Illegal dumps and uncontrolled burning of rubbish and other toxic material have been blamed for unusually high levels of cancer and other disease linked to pollution in the area.
According to environmental group Legambiente, 14% of environmental crimes in Italy take place in Campania, where 6,000 illegal waste fires and 2,000 toxic dumps were reported between January last year and August 2013.
The new decree includes measures which will also affect the troubled ILVA steel plant in the southern Italian city of Taranto, which has been at the centre of a long-standing judicial case.
Environment ministry sources on Tuesday said some sanctions will be suspended, assets that have been seized under ongoing investigations will be released and bureaucracy simplified to revamp the steelworks.
Courts have moved to force to company to make expensive environmental upgrades to the plant, accused of polluting the area and creating health problems for the past 18 years.