WasteGate – Companies Investigated for Ties with Camorra and Ndrangheta Deliver 9,000 Metric Tons of Waste to Bulgaria

In the summer of 2018, the Italian government canceled a notification for 9,000 metric tons of baled waste for Constanta, Romania. Because of the cancellation, the cargo has been diverted to the Bulgarian Danube town of Svishtov and from there – to the northwestern city of Pleven. The Italians have issued a new notification issued and a ship has transported the same waste to the Bulgarian Black Sea city and port of Varna at the end of 2018. In the first days of 2020, the Bulgarian authorities “discovered” this waste in Pleven. It had come from Naples and two companies related to investigations against  the Neapolitan Camorra and the Calabrian Ndrangheta had participated in its delivery. The Bulgarian waste recipient company had demonstrated technology that processes the waste into parking tiles and other construction products. However, prosecutors suspect that recycling is not happening and accuse the company of illegal storage of waste.

On the first day of the new 2020, the Ministry of Interior, the Prosecutor’s Office and the National Security Agency (DANS) boasted about an operation in Pleven, during which violations had been discovered in the storage of 9,000 metric tons of waste on a site of the company “Phoenix Pleven”. Pleven District Attorney Vanya Savova said the site was “apparently in violation of waste storage requirements” because the waste had been scattered and there had been no electricity, water and processing facilities at the site.

The waste in Pleven Photo: Dimitar Stoyanov, Bivol, December 2018

Prosecutors also announced that they would formally ask the Italian authorities whether the waste is linked to an investigation into the waste business of the Calabrian mafia Ndrangheta, which became known a few weeks ago. At that time, the authorities seized in Italy a train with 800 metric tons of waste destined for Bulgaria. The statements of the Ministry of Interior and the Prosecutor’s Office failed to clarify whether they had asked the Italian authorities about the consignee of the train shipment.

The investigators actually have all the information they need to make the connection between the waste in Pleven and the Italian crime groups. The names of the Italian companies involved in the waste transportation process are contained in the notifications sent from Italy to the Bulgarian Ministry of the Environment and Waters (MoEWs). Two of these companies have been mentioned in investigations linked to the Camorra and the Ndrangheta and this information is publicly available online, where it can be found by simple keyword searches.

The “mummified” Naples’ waste

The bales that had arrived in Pleven had come from Naples, according to documents available to Bivol and RISE Romania, partners in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). In particular, it had traveled to Bulgaria from the site near Villa Literno, in the Campania region.

This is unsorted waste, the so-called eco-bales, stored after the onset of the Naples waste crisis in the distant 1994. Then a state of emergency had been declared, continuing until 2009. The disaster had happened because the Neapolitan mafia, known as the Camorra, controls the waste business. The waste collected by the Camorra’s companies had not been recycled but had been disposed of and incinerated in unregulated landfills in the so-called “Triangle of Death”, an area between the municipalities of Acerra, Nola, and Marigliano, where highly elevated rates of cancers due to pollution were reported.

In response to the crisis, the Italian authorities had begun balling and deposing the waste in the so-called “eco-bales” in an organized manner. The largest amount – 2.4 million metric tons – had been piled on a huge dumpsite of four square kilometers near the village of Villa Literno. The scale is such that local eco-activists speak of the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”

“When we were struggling with deposing the bales, we called this place the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ because it is truly amazing, a huge four square kilometers site. Campania has 6 to 6.5 million metric tons of these garbage bales and this is the largest site,” says environmental activist Pina Elmo, interviewed by Rise Romania.

According to her, the waste in the bales is not sorted and there is whatnot in them.

“We do not want this waste to be burned somewhere, in Portugal, Romania or other parts of the world”, Elmo emphasizes.

However, incineration is one of the solutions, with a huge incinerator built in the town of Acerra with a capacity of over 600,000 metric tons of waste per year. Silvio Berlusconi formally opened the incinerator in 2009, but it mainly deals with new waste. The old “eco-bales” continue to “mature” on the sites.

Moving the eco-bales

In order to get rid of this poisonous heritage, local authorities have organized the disposal of the waste. A consortium, comprising the companies Vibeco, Bm Service and Sirio Ambiente, won in 2016 the tenders for two batches with a total of 200,000 metric tons, stored near Villa Literno. To deal with the unwanted waste, they were to receive EUR 30 million.

Информация за търговете за неаполитанския боклук се открива в доклад на специална комисия на Италианския сенат.

Some of this waste has been shipped to Portugal, according to an investigation by an ad hoc committee in the Italian House of Representatives and Senate (see here). Bulgaria is also mentioned as a destination for waste from Campania but in connection with an earlier period. According to the report, Bulgaria has received 7,000 metric tons of “other municipal mechanical waste” (code 191212), which is a modest amount compared to 66,000 metric tons exported to Austria. Despite all these efforts, more than 2 million metric tons of waste remained in the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by February 15, 2018, according to an investigation by the Italian parliamentary committee.

В периода 2014-2016 България е получила 7000 тона отпадъци от региона Кампания.

In this case, however, what matters more is where the waste from the tender won in 2016 by the consortium had gone and whether it had been properly treated. As a Fanpage investigation shows, only about 1% of the bales has been transported in the course of a year and a half to Portugal and Northern Italy. Negotiations have been held with Romania to accept another part of them. Officials from Naples have even visited Bulgaria’s northern neighbor with a lobbying mission, but Romania has rejected the proposal to house Italian waste.

Both Camorra and Ndrangheta in the waste scheme?

As it became clear, the waste is undesirable because it has not been recycled, but local authorities in Naples are keen to take advantage of the situation and receive commissions from tenders by entering the schemes of the Mafia’s waste trafficking organizations. The Italian journalists of Fanpage revealed this by conducting a large-scale undercover investigation, published in February 2018. Fanpage infiltrated Nunzio Perrella, a former mafia boss who lived under the witness protection program that pretended he was back in the dumping business. Equipped with a concealed camera, Perella recorded numerous conversations with entrepreneurs and government officials from Campania.

The footage reveals that the scheme involved both waste traffickers and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who had been negotiating for their cuts. They had even offered to delay the tender and go through an emergency procedure to justify prices up to EUR 230 per metric ton to generate a higher commission. The conversations reveal that the money has been needed for the election campaigns of Neapolitan politicians.

They further show that the waste has not been properly treated before being exported abroad. In particular, “the removal of all hazardous or recyclable materials from the eco-bales” has been missing. The company Vibeco is also mentioned.

Vibeco се появява в разследването на Fanpage за неаполитанския боклук и корупцията в търговете. Снимка: Fanpage.it

Fanpage’s investigation is widely reported by Italian media (see here and here) and triggers a formal investigation into corruption practices. Italian politicians resign and the region of Campania commits to conducting new tender procedures that require pre-treatment of the waste.

Another company from the eco-bales consortium is also investigated for links to the Mafia. In 2017, the anti-mafia operatives from the Regional Anti-Mafia Directorate of the Regio Calabria Prosecutor’s Office and the Regio Calabria Environmental Operations Unit of Arma dei Carabinieri indicted seven entities for criminal offenses in connection with the Ndrangheta “Piromallo” clan infiltrating the waste business. Among the companies with frozen assets, cited by the investigation, is the Calabrian Bm Service.

The road of the waste to Bulgaria

Vibeco S.r.l. has delivered the now infamous 9,000 metric tons of the Italian waste found in Pleven to the company “Phoenix Pleven” Ltd. This is certainly the same waste from the 2016 tender, since no other tender has been conducted since. The consignment has travelled by sea from the port of Naples to the port of Varna. The carrier to the port of Naples is Bm Service, documents available to Bivol show.

The initial plan for the delivery had been by ship from Naples to the Romanian port of Constanta, and thence along the Danube to the port of Svishtov. This is recorded in notification IT 010846 of the Italian Ministry of Environment and Waters to their Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts.

This notification, which is available to the Bulgarian MoEWs, investigators from the Ministry of the Interior and the Prosecutor’s Office, indicates the name of the waste delivery company – Vibeco S.r.l. However, the set of documents also has a list of all the companies that transport waste along this route. Among them is the name of the company Bm Services, associated with the Ndrangheta. It has carried out the transport to the port of Naples.

Първата нотификация за превоз на 9000 тона боклук от Италия до България през Румъния.

However, the Romanian authorities have bitter experience with the import of Italian garbage and have been prepared for serious inspections of the contents of bales. This is the most likely reason for this notification to be canceled by the Italian side on August 1, 2018. Then, the Romanian National Agency for Environmental Protection sent a message to the Bulgarian MoEWs by letter 14.072/NEPA/, dated November 06, 2018 and signed by the Director of the Department of Waste and Hazardous Chemicals, Brindusa Petroaica.

The Italian government issued a new notification with the same number and for the same shipment, but with a different route – from the port of Naples to the port of Varna, where the first waste shipment successfully arrived at the end of 2018. There is no information whether the bales have been checked by the Bulgarian authorities upon their arrival.

Нова нотификация за същата пратка за директен превоз от Неапол до Варна.

Romania has reasons to be suspicious of Italian waste. In 2013, a ship carrying 2,700 metric tons of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) waste from the Deco plant in Abruzzo was detained for months at the port of Constanta in Romania. The exporter of the cargo is Sergio Gozza through the Brescia company Ecovalsabbia.

A Bivol investigation, published in August 2019, found that after hitting a wall in Romania, Gozza has headed to Bulgaria, where the institutions are not causing troubles for him. Our investigation found evidence that in 2015 Ecovalsabbia had delivered incineration waste to Holcim’s cement plant in the Bulgarian village of Beli Izvor.

Waste for incineration

However, the shipments of RDF and household waste by Gozza’s Ecoexport S.r.L. are more relevant. They are destined for incineration in Thermal Power Plants (TPPs) linked to Bulgarian businessman Hristo Kovachki. Ecoexport and Gozza, himself, confirmed these deliveries in writing following a request by Bivol.

Waste is being incinerated in Pernik at the TPP – Republic, at TPP – Bobov Dol, at TPP – Brikel in Galabovo and at TPP – Sliven, Bivol’s investigation found. All these plants, in one form or another, have MoEWs permits either as a complex permit or for experimental incineration.

Following the publication of our August investigation, the editorial staff received letters from TPP-Brikel, TPP-Sliven and TPP-Pernik, acknowledging the incineration of waste, but stating that it is environmentally friendly and healthy for people.

The magnitude of deliveries of incineration waste to unsuitable TPPs is enormous. The company “Trash Universe” alone, associated with Kovachki, has a permit from the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Waters (RIEWs) in the southern city of Stara Zagora to store 1.6 million metric tons of waste at a site of 52 acres near the village of Obruchishte.

It is 76 times smaller than the Italian site, nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, which holds 2 million metric tons of waste.

Apart from this site, huge quantities of waste are stored in the TPPs themselves, as evidenced by video footage taken by a drone by a Bivol reporter.

“Trash Universe” denied receiving waste from Ecoexport and Ecovalsabbia. Nevertheless, their letter indirectly confirms the firm’s relationship with Kovachki. The metadata of the file, which has been created in Microsoft Word, includes the name of Nadezhda Arsova. She has been Hristo Kovachki’s secretary, according to a former member of the political party Leader, associated with Kovachki, cited by 24 Chassa (24 Hours) daily.

The MoEWs and the Customs Agency refused our request under the Access to Public Information Act (APIA) to provide a list of companies that import waste into our country.

Bulgarian “miracle technology” makes parking plates out of waste

A Bivol reporter filmed the bales at the Pleven site and spoke with a representative of “Phoenix Pleven” as early as the end of 2018. The latter explained that the “mummified” waste was particularly suitable for recycling because the plastic content was very high – 80%. According to him, the company has technology that allows the waste to be used to “manufacture parking tiles, curbs, roof tiles, siphons, bars, and shafts.”

“The recycling process consists of material sorting, washing, granulating and manufacturing of items. The technology is our own and we are currently trying to patent it. Basically, plastics are mixed with sand, molded and pressed. We sell the remaining materials, like paper, wood and metal on the market. The operations by which we recycle materials are R12 and R3,” the company specified and provided photos and video from the process of testing the technology.

Преса за плоскости от боклук. Снимка Феникс Плевен

“Phoenix Pleven” also said that they had been issued all necessary permits for this activity by the RIEWs and the MoEWS, something that was confirmed by the RIEWs after an inquiry under the APIA. The MoEWs has issued a notification for the import of baled plastic waste with code EWC 191212 – 9,000 metric tons from Italy.

Преса за плоскости от боклук. Снимка Феникс Плевен

Can this recycling process work on an industrial scale and is it an alternative to the incineration and storage of waste? According to “Phoenix Pleven”, the technology has existed for many years and is used in India and Africa.

However, the Bulgarian investigating authorities doubt that there is such a miraculous solution for recycling the waste and point out that the site lacks electricity and water and that the recycling machines are obsolete.

The invisible Kovachki

The 9,000 metric tons of Italian waste, delivered to “Phoenix Pleven” for recycling, are just 0.5% of the planned 1.6 million metric tons for incineration at the TPPs. For the time being, however, the Bulgarian authorities are not acting against Kovachki’s business. Meanwhile, energy mogul Hristo Kovachki, is described in leaked US classified diplomatic cables, published by WikiLeaks, as a key player in Bulgaria’s so-called “energy mafia”:

21. (C) Hristo Kovachki is the newest player in the sector and, according to Kaptial’s Alexandrova, lacks the professional expertise and savvy of Manchev and Georgiev. Kovachki’s roots are more directly associated with organized crime. He was a close associate of Konstantin Dimitrov (a.k.a. Samokovetsa), who, before being murdered in Amsterdam in 2003, was one of Bulgaria’s biggest smugglers. Some, like Dyulgerov, believe that Dimitrov’s illicit activities were the source of Kovachki’s start-up capital, which he then used to buy into the energy sector. Others who are more acquainted with Dimitrov and Bulgaria’s smuggling channels see Russia and Russian organized crime behind Kovachki’s wealth. Regardless of the source of his initial wealth, Kovacki’s current empire is vast. Along with being the owner of the only brick factory in the Balkans (Brikel), Kovachki and his primary company “Atomenergoremont” own at least 4 mines, 5 district heating facilities (in Burgas, Pleven, Veliko Turnovo, Gabrovo and Vratsa), several thermal power plants (TPP) including a 51% stake in Dimitrovgrad’s mini-Martisa East 3, as well as controlling five coal companies and being a minority shareholder in Sofia’s municipal bank. More recently, he was the only bidder for the Sliven heating utility in late November.

The primary lender of businesses associated with Hristo Kovachki is the Bulgarian First Investment Bank (FIB or Fibank). One of the bank’s owners, Ivaylo Mutafchiev, is Kovachki’s best man. According to research by Bivol from 2014, the liabilities of his group of companies to Fibank exceed BGN 300 million. Following on from these findings, Greenpeace published a report on Kovachki’s business, titled “Financial Mines”, suggesting that the businessman is not a standalone player but is most likely a frontman for the business and political groups around FIB.

The burning of Italian waste is a new stage in Kovachki’s energy-related projects and it is logical from a financial viewpoint. Different companies in Italy sell different types of municipal, household and industrial waste and RDF for between EUR 80 and 140 per metric ton.

According to an investigation by Capital weekly, the garbage-burning business is profitable in three ways – from waste collection, electricity cogeneration, and saving millions from carbon quotas because according to European Union regulations waste has zero CO2 emissions. Recently, journalists from the newspaper won a legal case against the refusal of the MoEWs to provide the data from the waste import notifications under the APIA.

The weak oversight by the institutions and their persistence to refuse information on the import of waste suggests another danger – instead of being incinerated or recycled, the waste from Italy and other countries will simply be disposed of and forgotten for decades in Bulgaria.

Dimitar Stoyanov and Atanas Tchobanov (Bivol) and Romana Puiulet (Rise Romania) worked on this investigation

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