TARANTO, Italy (CN) — “We are the first city of the dead,” Giovanni Scialpi, a street-side mussels vendor in Italy’s bootheel, says without a shadow of a doubt on his face. “Taranto is called the city of the dead. Everything is polluted. The water, the air. Everyone dies from tumors. So many health problems, and it’s always tumors.”
Scialpi shrugs, shakes his head and goes back to a livelihood he’s carried on for 25 years, selling mussels under the shade of an umbrella over his stand.
Will the environment here see major improvements now that Italy’s government is run by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement that’s vowed to close Ilva, a mammoth steelworks plant blamed for much of the pollution?
“Nothing’s going to change with the new government,” Scialpi says with little enthusiasm. “To make things better, they need to get rid of Ilva, get rid of all the plants.”
Dangerous pollution, including deadly dioxin, is the tragic story of Taranto, a bustling but badly bruised maritime city on the Ionian Sea on the northwest corner of the bootheel.
Ilva is a coal-powered steelworks mill and the largest mill in Europe, long a pride of Italian industry. But now it’s a national embarrassment.
It was built by the former national steel company near old Taranto during the 1960s, a period of industrialization for Italy’s poor south.
Since the early 2000s, a series of investigations by law enforcement, environmental and health specialists, judges and magistrates, with much prodding by citizen groups, revealed that decades of contamination have left residents, neighborhoods, water bodies, pastureland and groundwater near the plant dangerously polluted.
Most troubling was the discovery of high levels of dioxins, considered among the world’s most dangerous carcinogenic industrial toxins.
Flocks of sheep near Ilva were slaughtered after cheese made from their milk was found contaminated with dioxins in 2008. Grazing now is forbidden in uncultivated fields within a 20-kilometer (12½ mile) radius of Ilva.
Mussel cultivation is off limits in a large coastal lagoon next to the city called the Little Sea after high levels of dioxins were discovered in 2011.
Drinking wells too have been polluted, according to recent studies.
Since 2017, schools near the plant are closed on windy days to prevent children from breathing contaminated dust blown in from giant piles of processed and raw minerals sitting uncovered at the plant. Ilva is preparing to cover those piles.
Health studies have found high rates of tumors in plant workers and in the general population. Dioxins were even found in the milk of breastfeeding mothers.
Health investigators linked the deaths of 386 people over 13 years to industrial pollutants — one death every 12 days — and the most of those deaths to Ilva, according to prosecutors.
Italian judges ordered Ilva to close the most-polluting parts of the plaint in 2012. Political leaders balked at that. Italy’s center-left governments passed a series of decrees to keep the plant open.
Today Ilva is a crucial test for the 5-Star Movement and its 32-year-old leader, Luigi Di Maio.
In the March general elections, the 5-Star Movement was buoyed into power with the support of southern Italians.
The party has made pro-environmental stances central — among them a call to close down Ilva and clean up its grounds. The 5-Star Movement hauled in nearly half of Taranto’s votes in March.
“They would lose entirely their credibility if they don’t close the plant,” said Massimo Ruggieri, a leader of Giustizia per Taranto (Justice for Tatanto), a citizens group that demands Ilva be closed and Taranto’s economy revamped.
Di Maio arrives in power at a crucial moment. The plant is administered by the Italian government after the state took over Ilva in 2013 from its owners, the Riva family, who were accused of widespread environmental crimes and fraud.
Now the state is in talks to sell the plant to French-Indian steel giant AcelorMittal for 1.8 billion euros ($2.1 billion U.S.). The deal would include massive investments to make the facility compliant with EU environmental laws.
A decision on Ilva now rests with Di Maio, who is Italy’s economic development minister and deputy premier. He recently postponed a decision until September.
Ruggieri said there is skepticism about Di Maio’s intentions because he has stopped talking about closing the plant.
Di Maio has made dealing with Ilva a priority. He’s met with union leaders, Ilva workers, environmental groups, the AcelorMittal group and families hurt by pollution.
In the past, Di Maio, in line with other 5-Star politicians, has said it should be closed. The party’s founder, comedian-turned-politician called Beppe Grillo, has said Ilva should be turned into a big eco-park.
“Taranto is an emblem for Italy,” Di Maio said in front of television cameras during a visit to Taranto. He said the plant represents a defunct industrial model and that profiteering, business lobbyists and corrupt politicians have kept the dangerous mill open.
“We need to start an urban revolution, a regeneration of our cities,” he said during the visit. “We have to unhook ourselves from an industrial model (that dates) from the end of the 1900s.”
Instead of dirty industries, he said, Southern Italy could thrive on tourism, its historic treasures and beautiful landscapes.
“The citizens of Taranto must be able to breathe again,” he has said repeatedly.
But now Di Maio is wavering as he studies the options.
“To be frank, I don’t believe they can close it,” said Ruggero Ranieri, an industrial historian and steel expert. “It would be like shutting down a piece of the country.”
Closing Taranto would have ripple effects throughout Italy, where other Ilva plants, and allied industries, rely on steel produced in Taranto, putting at risk thousands of jobs, he said. The Ilva plant in Taranto provides jobs for more than 14,000 workers.
Lunetta Franco, the head of the Taranto chapter of the environmental group Legambiente, said she believes the plant should be kept open only if it is made much cleaner and installs better technologies.
What she does not want to happen is for the mill to be closed without being cleaned up, and its workers left unemployed and without new job training.
“So many people’s livelihoods depend on this mill,” she said. “We are afraid of a closing of the mill without a parachute for the workers, so to speak.”
But those who want it closed see it differently.
They say Ilva is an economic disaster because it habitually runs at a financial loss, though in part that’s because it’s cut production to reduce pollution. Opponents also say steel is much more cheaply elsewhere in the world.
“We have too much steel. It’s not strategic,” said Alessandro Marescotti, an activist with PeaceLink, which helped bring to light the high levels of dioxin in 2005. “It’s a fake argument to say it has strategic value.”
He says the plant should be closed and Taranto turned into a greener city.
“Taranto needs to do what they’ve done in other parts of the world, like Pittsburgh, (and) the Ruhr in Germany,” Marescotti said. “We need to give Taranto a new heart put in by an excellent heart surgeon.”
On the streets of Taranto, though, it’s far from clear that the majority of people think the same way. In a limited survey of passersby by a Courthouse News Service reporter, seven of 10 people said the plant should not be closed down, but modified, to make it less polluting.
But in the Tamburi neighborhood, next to Ilva, feelings are raw. On windy days, residents shut themselves in their apartments to avoid breathing dust and pollutants. Balconies, cars, parks and playgrounds routinely are covered in red dust. The cemetery is a sad place where too many neighbors have been laid to rest prematurely. People talk about mothers’ milk being contaminated.
A 55-year-old pensioner, who chose not to give his name, was gloomy.
“It’s a situation that is very grave, very grave,” he said.
Simply making sure the neighborhood soil is not contaminated would require a massive reclamation project, he said.
“I hope one day they solve all these problems. But there’s always this menefreghismo,” he said, using an Italian expression meaning “not giving a damn.”
In Tamburi’s main square there is not much activity. In the 1970s, during the heyday of the steel mill when about 40,000 workers were employed there, the large square would fill up with thousands of workers during shift changes.
One of the only places left open today is the Mini Bar, a café and bar.
Inside, the owner, Ignazio D’Andria, talked frankly about the steel mill and its legacy.
“When we were children they told us there would be problems with pollution,” he recalled. “But at school they told us industry is good, that it allows us to buy cars, houses, clothes.”
He added wryly: “When we were children, the mineral dust was fun. At night, when we saw it, we thought a holy fairy had come. Little did we know that it was all poisons.”
Just then, patrons came in and complained about Ilva. One millworker lamented that on windy days schools are closed, but that workers like he continue working around the piles of raw minerals. Another patron talked emotionally about a relative with a tumor.
“We’re a zero class,” he said.
For him, and others here, the 5-Star Movement isn’t likely to live up to campaign promises.
“When they come campaigning they talk about reclamation, restoration or closing it. But when they get into power, they don’t remember who you are,” D’Andria said. “Sailors’ promises, as we say here in Taranto.”