Rome’s long-standing waste problems turned into an emergency as a huge fire at a disposal plant blanketed the Eternal City in smoke and forced authorities to scramble to find alternative facilities to treat the capital’s rubbish.

The Salaria plant has been the subject of protests for years by residents complaining of putrid smells and demanding its closure.

Arson was suspected as the blaze put the plant out of operation indefinitely. It also sparked shorter-term health concerns given the huge cloud of smoke that covered the city.

Smoke rises from the fire
Smoke rises from the fire (Italian Firefighters Vigili del Fuoco/AP)

While no health emergency was declared, Rome authorities urged residents to close their windows and stay indoors. Officials also recommended Romans avoid eating produce cultivated near the plant, suggesting fears of toxic residue settling in the northern part of the city.

Authorities are trying to monitor the smoke cloud and to find an alternative plant for regular waste treatment and to deal with the Christmas period, when rubbish collection spikes.

The Salaria facility treats about 800 tons of garbage a day — between 20% and 25% of the city total, news reports said.

Rome’s garbage collection and disposal system were notoriously insufficient even before the plant went out of service, and officials acknowledged the blaze had turned a festering problem into an emergency.

Firefighters work to extinguish the fire
Firefighters work to extinguish the fire (Massimo Percossi/Ansa/AP)

Mayor Virginia Raggi appealed for local authorities in Lazio and other regions to lend a hand and open their depots to Rome’s waste for the foreseeable future.

“All institutions are working to facilitate a solution,” she said at a news conference that was interrupted by hecklers.

Environment minister Sergio Costa said health authorities have determined that there is no immediate health emergency due to the smoke, but the situation is being monitored.

He suggested foul play, noting that in recent days structural work had begun to improve the plant’s functioning and capacity.

“It’s perplexing that precisely at the moment that the problem was being dealt with … a fire breaks out,” he said.