The Steel Plant Polluting an Italian City

Steel plant under fire for impact on public health and the environment

The largest steel plant in Europe is not in Germany, the UK or France. It is not, in fact, in what could be considered an industrial heartland by any stretch. Instead, it is in southern Italy, in the ancient Greek colony of Taranto, which sprawls around a bay dotted with Italian naval warships.

Photo of Ilva Taranto Steel PlantPhoto by mafe de baggis from Milano, Italy Ilva’s steel plant in Taranto, Italy. A local magistrate ordered a partial shut-down of the plant in 2012 due to health concerns.

In 1965, this city of fishermen and sailors was earmarked by the national government for industrial development, and the Ital Sider steel plant was built in close proximity to the city and the coastline. The plant, since then privatized and renamed Ilva, produces ten million tons of steel every year, representing 40 percent of the national production of Italy. In a region still plagued with 23 percent unemployment, ILVA has provided greatly needed jobs, but at a very high cost. The plant has had a catastrophic impact on the environment in the region and on the people living there.

According to an estimate released in 2005 by the European Pollutant Emissions Register, the Taranto’s plant alone is responsible for 83 percent of emissions of dioxin in all of Italy. Local residents have to sweep red mineral dust emitted by the plant from their balconies on a regular basis. An epidemic report by the Procura di Taranto (the local prosecutor’s office) unveiled gruesome numbers: The dust causes 90 deaths a year, and leads to 650 more hospitalizations for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases annually. In the Paolo VI suburb, built in the 1960s to host people migrating from the countryside to work at the plant, deaths by respiratory diseases are 64 percent higher than in the rest of the city. The report also highlighted an increased incidence in tumors and cancer in infants and young people in the region. Government figures put the cancer death rate in the area at 15 percent above national levels; lung cancer rates in Taranto are up to 30 percent higher than national rates.

The Italian Ministry of Health declared Taranto to be at high environmental risk as early as 1991, following a similar WHO declaration in 1986. The plant’s footprint is so big that livestock grazing has been banned within 20 kilometers of the facility, leading to the slaughter of 3000 animals found to have excessive levels of dioxin. Several areas of the bay are no longer suitable for mussel farming, leading to a loss of livelihood for local fishermen and harming the local economy. The negative impacts the plant has had on other potential avenues of growth for the economy are harder to estimate. With its beautiful coast and culturally rich hinterland, Taranto has all the qualities necessary to become a prime tourist destination, but the sight of the factory emitting pollutants daily, and the proximity of the plant to several beach areas, has hampered development of the tourism industry.

In July 2012, local magistrate Patrizia Todisco ordered a partial shut-down due to health concerns, despite vehement opposition by both the local and national governments. Italy’s then health minister argued at the time that losing a job was also detrimental to one’s health.

Fearful that cheap Chinese competition would outpace Italian production of steel, however, the central government overruled the magistrate’s decision in November 2012 in order to keep the factory operational. Ilva was required to undertake a three billion-euro environmental cleanup, and Italian magistrates launched an investigation into legal violations committed by plant management. Since then, police forces have occupied several sections of the plant as part of the investigation, and in 2013, the national government placed Ilva under special administration. Two special high commissioners have been named to oversee land reclamation efforts, one for the area around the factory, and another for the coastline of the city.

The former president of Ilva, Emilio Riva, his successor and son Nicola Riva, as well as many others connected with the administration of both the company and the Taranto plant, were placed under arrest by order of magistrate Todisco in coordination with the 2012 seizure of the plant. The main charge against them is participation in a criminal association aimed at the commission of crimes against public safety, or in short, “environmental disaster,” which is a criminal offense in Italy. Other charges include: removal or omission of precautions against accidents at the workplace; poisoning of food; and crimes against public administration — that is, taking bribes, corruption in general, and abuse of office.

Secondary charges include damage against the environment — through landfills, air, water and the lack of prevention of major accidents — as well as murder, and injury by negligence through violation of workplace safety regulations. Emilio Riva died in 2014 while under house arrest. His son Fabio Riva, 60, is currently in jail. After the preliminary hearing, the presiding judge ordered that the three companies responsible for building and running the plant (ILVA, Riva FIRE. and RIVA FORNI ELETTRICI) and 44 people should stand trial, including several managers, as well as the governor of Apulia and the major of Taranto. The trial began on October 20, 2015. However, due to errors in the preliminary hearing records, the whole matter was sent back to the preliminary hearing stage on December 9.

The fallout from “Ilva gate” is, however, even bigger than this criminal case. An investigation by the European Commission is still pending today, prompted by a dossier submitted to Brussels by the nonprofit PeaceLink. The investigation is directed against the Italian government for its role in allowing the plant to exceed European environmental parameters and WHO recommendations in operating the plant, destroying the environment of the region, and killing thousands of people in the process.

In October 2015, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety requested a report by its policy department on the Taranto situation. The report sums up the most recent legal proceedings: “The European Commission in 2013 and 2014 sent official letters to the Italian government, requesting it to take measures to ensure that the Taranto steel plant operated in conformity with the Industrial Emissions Directive. In its press release, the Commission also stated that Italy had failed to comply with the ‘polluter pays’ principle enshrined in the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD).” (The ELD is a 2004 European directive on liability with respect to the prevention and remediation of environmental damage.)

According to the Commission’s register of infringement procedures, the Commission has so far withheld from taking action against Italy for the non-conformity of the plant. If the Commission is not satisfied with the response by the Italian authorities, the report postulates that the next step could be a referral to the European Court of Justice.

As the city awaits the outcome of the proceedings, the residents know one thing for certain: Even if the factory were to close tomorrow, and the environmental recovery plan were to be swiftly implemented, it would take years to see even a partial recovery of what was once the beating heart of marine ecology of southern Italy, and perhaps even longer to overcome the plant’s impact on public health in the region.

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