Steelworks crisis threatens Italys unsteady coalition

TARANTO, Italy — In the redbrick neighborhood of Tamburi, Europes largest steelworks is an inescapable part of life.

On the rooftop of his apartment block, steelworker Fabio Cocco ran a finger over a layer of red dust — the toxic byproduct of the plant. “Its as if we are working 24 hours a day — its the same inside the plant or outside,” he said.

For years, the steelworks has been tolerated as a necessary evil: Some 8,000 people are employed at the plant, and about 50,000 — a quarter of the citys population — depend on it for their livelihood, even as exposure to its chemicals is accused of wrecking their health. The plants output represents as much as 75 percent of the provinces GDP.

But a dispute over the fate of the steel plant — and with it, the city — is threatening to capsize Italys fragile coalition government, which is deeply divided over how to reconcile mounting environmental and health concerns with the need for jobs in Italys struggling south.

The crisis kicked off earlier this month, when the plants operator, the multinational ArcelorMittal, signaled it would withdraw from its lease after the Italian government passed a law that downgraded legal guarantees protecting the steel company from liability.

Protesters have called on the prime minister to close the plant and create new jobs with a clean-up of the site using EU funding.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is now scrambling to find a solution that will keep the plant open and keep his government — an uneasy alliance between the Democratic Party (PD) and the anti-establishment 5Star Movement — intact. Lawmakers from the 5Star Movement, which has its roots in Italys environmental movement and has pledged to end emissions from the Taranto plant, have said they will block efforts to grant ArcelorMittal immunity and keep the plant operational.

Residents, too, are divided on what should happen to the steelworks.

Protesters have called on the prime minister to close the plant and create new jobs with a clean-up of the site using EU funding. One of the plants unions supports the plan, while three others want to see ArcelorMittal retain control so they can keep working.

Until recently, Cocco, who was a union leader, was fighting to save his job. But he has changed his mind. He wants the government to put an end to steel production in favor of new, clean jobs.

“Attention !!! polluted city” | Alfonso di Vincenzo/AFP via Getty Images

He points out the cemetery, colored pink from the dust, where many of his colleagues are buried. His daughter, like many children in Tamburi, has a respiratory condition.

“We all need work to eat, but this work will kill us,” he said. “I realized I cant just live hoping that today, tomorrow it wont happen to me, or my family.”

I am terrified

Compared with other industrial sites, the steelworks is noteworthy for its proximity to residents in the heart of Taranto.

Straddling two seas, with elegant 19th century palazzos, a castle and seaside promenades, Taranto has all the makings of a leading tourist destination. But no matter your vantage point in the city, the red-and-white-striped chimneys of the ArcelorMittal plant dominate the skyline, a smoking reminder of the citys troubles.

For decades, the mortality rate in Taranto has risen and fallen in direct relation with the amount of steel being produced, according to pediatrician Annamaria Moschetti, who oversees environmental diseases for the Taranto Order of Doctors.

Studies have linked the plants emissions, which include heavy metals and dioxins, and the high incidence of respiratory, renal and cardiovascular diseases among the citys residents. In Taranto, people are more likely to develop cancerous tumors than elsewhere in the region of Puglia; women are more likely to give birth to babies with defects.

A plaque in Tamburi reading “another death from lung cancer” | Alfonso di Vincenzo/AFP via Getty Images

A comprehensive survey published in June by Italys national body for health research, ISS, found that there were almost twice as many lymphomas among children in Taranto between 2005 and 2012 compared with regional averages. More than 3,000 deaths were directly linked to “limited environmental exposure,” the study found.

Carla Lucarelli lost her 15-year-old son Giorgio in January to a rare kind of soft-tissue sarcoma that has been linked to dioxin exposure.

She holds the steel plant responsible for her loss, but channels her anger into demonstrations and raising money for research into childrens cancers.

Sitting in the shady garden of the foundation dedicated to her son Giorgio, she looks at a picture of him fishing. Now her younger son, 11, is afraid of getting ill. “Every time he has a headache I am terrified. For his sake I try and pretend Im not worried, but I see the fear on his face.”

“Of 200,000 people in Taranto, we realize that 8,000 workers and their families are living in fear” — Michela Pacifico, one of the plaintiffs in the ECHR case

In January, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for failing to protect the residents of Taranto, ruling that the government had “failed to take all the necessary measures to provide effective protection of the applicants right to respect for their private life.”

The case was put together by Daniela Spera, a research chemist, who had returned to her hometown of Taranto to write her Ph.D. in 2006 and noticed there were “tumors in nearly every family, especially among children.” She remembers thinking, “This is abnormal.”

At an impasse

For years, successive governments passed legislation to support the plant, despite local efforts to shut it down.

In 2012, prosecutors ordered the suspension of the plants operations after a damning health report, and ruled that the owners were responsible for environmental damage caused. But the government allowed the plant to keep operating. When ArcelorMittal took over in 2018, it invested some €2.4 billion to modernize the works and reduce its emissions, promising to implement a clean-up by 2023.

The plant itself is a city within a city: It has its own railway, Read More – Source