Italian Pro-Environment Party Keeps Dirty Steelworks Open

Workers at Ilva wait for buses at the end of their shift. The furnaces of Ilva rise in the background. (Photo by Cain Burdeau/CNS)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – The 5-Star Movement, Italy’s maverick anti-establishment and pro-environment party, is bitterly disappointing supporters in southern Italy who hoped its politicians would carry out promises to close a gigantic steelworks mill long a source of pollution.

But on Thursday, the 5-Star Movement’s leader and Italy’s labor and development minister, Luigi Di Maio, announced a deal to keep the mill running. The mill will be turned over to ArcelorMittal, a global steel production company.

“It is the best possible result in the worst conditions,” Di Maio said, according to Ansa, an Italian news agency.

In June, Di Maio’s party joined the right-wing League party to form a coalition government.

The announcement was not unexpected, but it still set off protests and sparked outrage, especially in Taranto, an ancient city heavily industrialized after widespread destruction caused by Allied bombing in the Second World War.

The coal-powered steelworks, called Ilva, is located next to Taranto and its pollution has long been considered a national shame for Italy, as Courthouse News reported in July. But the importance of the plant, in terms of jobs and steel production, has made closing it extremely difficult.

“There’s a lot of disappointment – a lot,” said Leonardo La Porta, the secretary of Justice for Taranto, a citizens group calling for the closing of Ilva.

In an apparent broken promise, the 5-Star Movement and the League agreed in a power-sharing pact to close down major polluters like Ilva, protesters complained.

A protest banner against Ilva on the main square of the Tamburi neighborhood of Taranto hangs next to a macabre image of a gas mask with the words “Warning! Polluted City” circling it. (Photo by Cain Burdeau/CNS)

Protesters like La Porta convened on a main piazza in Taranto on Thursday and held a 24-hour sit-in. La Porta spoke to Courthouse News by telephone from the piazza and he said discussions were being held about what steps to take next in the protest movement.

On Thursday, Italian media showed a video clip of a 5-Star Movement parliamentarian from Taranto, Rosalba De Giorgi, being accompanied by police officers while protesters hurled insults at her as she walked down a street.

De Giorgi and other 5-Star Movement politicians campaigned on promises of closing Ilva, La Porta said. De Giorgi spoke with protesters in the piazza and she told them closing Ilva simply wasn’t possible.

The deal was struck between the government, trade unions and ArcelorMittal. The deal saves jobs and requires the company to make environmental improvements.

The Ilva plant in Taranto was built by Italy’s former national steel company during the 1960s. 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 12½- mile radius of Ilva.

A mural in a church in the Tamburi neighborhood of Taranto shows Jesus blessing the massive Ilva steelworks. (Photo by Cain Burdeau/CNS)

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. Health investigators linked the deaths of 386 people over 13 years to industrial pollutants — one death every 12 days — and 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.

The 5-Star Movement did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

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