The sprawling ILVA steelworks has loomed over the skyline of Taranto and dominated the city’s economy for 50 years, but toxic pollution has transformed the site from a symbol of post-World War II prosperity to an emblem of Italy’s long industrial decline.
Following years of uncontrolled environmental abuse, the future of the plant, the largest steel producer in Europe, now hangs in the balance after judges finally stepped in last month and ordered it to clean up or be shut down.
The plant’s owners, the family-owned Riva Group, must now wait until the end of next month for a specially appointed group of experts to decide what action it must take to gain a new environmental certificate allowing continued operation.
As many as 20,000 jobs are at risk in an area already weakened by high unemployment, while officials look for a solution to a problem that has produced abnormal levels of tumors and chronic respiratory disease in the city, located on the “heel” of southern Italy.
“How are people supposed to live?” said former ILVA worker Michele Fiorino, as he stood in Tamburi, a rundown Taranto suburb that stands in the shadow of the plant and where mortality rates are as much as 70 percent above the city average.
“At night, when it’s hot like this, you’ve got a choice — sleep with the windows open and risk getting covered in black dust, or closing the windows and turning on the air conditioning, and not everyone around here can afford that,” he said.
Behind the immediate health threat, ILVA is a stark example of the suffocating mix of short-term political expediency, poor oversight and endemic corruption that has given Italy the most sluggish economy of any eurozone country over the course of a decade, with average growth of less than 1 percent a year.
Unlike more modern steel plants in Germany or France, with their advanced filters and safety systems, ILVA’s huge smokestacks dump thousands of tonnes of choking dust on the city every year, giving many of the buildings in Tamburi a distinctive black or dull-red tone.
Emissions of dioxins, benzoapyrene and other cancer-causing chemicals have poisoned fishing and farmland for kilometers around in what a Taranto court described as an “environmental disaster.”
Court documents say the Riva Group has made numerous unfulfilled pledges to clean up at the site and company head Emilio Riva has been convicted twice of environmental offenses over the past decade.
However, until magistrates seized key parts of the site at the end of last month, no effective action had ever been taken to stop the pollution or make ILVA match environmental standards laid down in EU regulations.
Giorgio Assennato, head of the ARPA environmental authority in the Puglia region where Taranto is located, said the fact that it took the courts to intervene and shut the plant, despite repeated warnings from ARPA and other authorities, laid bare a dangerous weakness in regulatory control.
“We have to accept the fact that in Italy you have to turn to the criminal justice system because the system of environmental governance is unbalanced by lobbies, which use improper practices to influence institutions for their own advantage,” Assenato said.
As national elections approach next year, the case of ILVA, one of the few big industrial employers left in the south, underlines the complexity and scale of the challenge that will face any government trying to make the deep structural reforms needed to restore Italy’s sclerotic economy.