Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti will send three ministers to Taranto, southern Italy, to try and prevent a shutdown of Europe’s biggest steel mill, Italian media said on Sunday.
Monti is also checking with legal experts to see if he can intervene in a dispute over pollution by the ILVA steel plant, which provides work for 20,000 people in a region where unemployment exceeds 30 percent, the Ansa news agency reported.
That is roughly three times the national average.
Production at the plant is threatened by pollution that has led local judge Patrizia Todisco to say she could not foresee pursuing operations while an investigation into a possible “environmental catastrophe” is carried out.
Monti has told Italian Economic Development Minister Corrado Passero, Environment Minister Corrado Clini and Justice Minister Paola Severino to go to Taranto on Friday, Ansa said, quoting government sources.
“Measures taken by the judge contradict what was set up by the environment ministry and do not take into account work that has already been done and the ministry’s role,” Clini said late on Sunday.
He had warned in an interview earlier in the day against suspending operations at the giant steel plant.
“When we talk about suspending production, we must take responsibility” for possibly boosting rival steel makers in Europe and China, Clini told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
“Italy will lose out whereas I see plenty of European competitors waiting in the wings, not to mention the Chinese, who would profit enormously,” he added.
“I’m not just talking about the 20,000 employees that depend on ILVA, but other sites in Italy that use ILVA’s production,” the minister said. “Who will provide the Italian economy with steel?”
The plant’s operators were last week ordered to clean up pollution some blame for high local cancer rates, a ruling that could mean suspending output and losing business.
ILVA chairman Bruno Ferrante told Corriere della Sera that “saying no to production means stopping the heart of the company, its reason for being.”
The site has witnessed a fierce stand-off between those who want it closed and thousands of families that depend on it for jobs amid a chronic economic crisis.
On Friday, Todisco notified the plant’s managers that she could not “foresee using the site ... for production purposes” while chemicals from the factory were cleaned up. ILVA is appealing the decision.
The clean-up order did not specify if the factory would have to close while the work was undertaken.
An Italian study last year found that the southern Italian city suffered from a “mortality excess” of between 10 and 15 percent, due to the release of dioxin and other chemicals causing cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
The government has promised a 336 million euro (US$414 million) clean-up to help solve the problem.