reR GRAZIA PARISI has been working continuously for four hours on her pediatric surgery. “I saw between 30 and 35 children, all of them coughed,” she says. It’s Monday. The week before, from Wednesday to noon Friday, Taranto, in the extreme south of Italy, had undergone a succession of what the inhabitants call the “days of the wind”. This is when the wind blows from the northwest, through Europe’s largest steel works on the outskirts, and into the city.
“There is a mathematical correlation between the windy days and the [number of] the respiratory illnesses I treat, “says Dr. Parisi. The closer his patients live to the steelworks, the more acute their symptoms will be. Several of his patients had spent part of the weekend at the local hospital and some had even been admitted, such was the severity of their ailments.
Things were even worse before the new owners of the plant, ArcelorMittal, a multinational, covered its gigantic stocks of coal and iron. But, says Luciano Manna, an environmental activist, the wind still collects a lot of mineral dust in the landfills of the factory. Commonly known, by reference to its previous owners,HE WILL“, The steelworks is the size of a small town or a large suburb. It covers 15 square kilometers (six square miles).
The Italian government has set February 28 as the deadline for an agreement with ArcelorMittal on the fate of the plant, one of the worst environmental black spots in Europe. The company leased the site in 2018 under an agreement by which it committed to cleaning up the plant and inherited – from government commissioners who then managed the site – immunity from prosecution for environmental crimes.
But last November, ArcelorMittal withdrew from the agreement after the non-conformism Five Star Movement (M5S), which is part of a ruling coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (PD), has successfully lifted immunity. Critics of the company say it has not invested enough in cleaning, an accusation dismissed by the company. Dr. Parisi wishes to close the steel plant. It is not alone: a commitment from M5S the closure of the factory helped it win 48% of the votes in Taranto in the last general elections in 2018.
On one side of the Piazza Gesù Divine Lavoratore in Taranto, the walls between the shops and the bars are covered with a textured stone that retains the dust that can be in the air. Pass a finger on the stone and it comes out red. “Iron oxide,” says Ignazio D’Andria, owner of the Mini Bar. “This is why all the buildings here are painted red or pink or some other dark color, so you cannot see the mineral dust.” His bar is in Tamburi, a neighborhood built for steelworkers and their families that begins almost on the perimeter of the giant complex. Tamburi suffers from the worst of pollution, but locals say that a lot of mineral dust enters the center of Taranto when the wind blows through the city and towards the sea.
According to a gold merchant who has the store next to the Mini Bar, six of the children from the local houses suffer from learning difficulties. This would be consistent with a study published in 2016, which found that the IQs children in Tamburi were on average 13 points lower than those of children living 15 km away. But the threatsHE WILL the poses are not just about health and the environment.
“It’s a social bomb,” said Giuseppe Romano, the local secretary of the left. CGIL–IMF union federation. The plant employs more than 8,000 people. Another 4,000 work for its suppliers. If the formerHE WILL were to close completely, thousands of other jobs would be lost due to declining turnover in bars, shops and other businesses. And this in a province where one in six workers is already unemployed.
Taranto and the province to which it belongs are part of Puglia, the “heel” of the Italian “boot”, a region with various fortunes in recent years. It experienced a tourist boom but was affected by the spread in its olive groves of an insect-borne disease, Xylella fastidiosa. In search of sources of income and jobs to replace the steel plant in the event of disappearance, local authorities have sponsored plans for the foundation of a university in Taranto, for more shipbuilding and for an aquarium. There is talk of encouraging more cruise ships to dock in its vast harbor. And in January, Taranto became the first city in Italy to offer houses for sale for 1 euro, provided that buyers renovate and live there. The plan aims to revive the historic but dilapidated old town on an island between a lagoon and the Mediterranean.
Romano nonetheless hopes to find a way “to make steel without killing people”. The question is how much. He calculates that a thousand workers are needed to produce a million tonnes of steel. The market in Europe is saturated. Last year, the steelworks produced only 4.3 million tonnes against a capacity of 9 to 10 meters and a government target of 8 million.
The negotiators are said to be close to an agreement which would imply that ArcelorMittal continues to operate the works, possibly in partnership with the government, on the understanding that one of the existing blast furnaces is renovated and that a new electric is built. Such an agreement would represent a defeat for the M5S– a party already ravaged by bitter internal divisions which has seen its popularity collapse since 2018. But that would reduce pollution, without eliminating it. And that would save thousands of jobs.
Yet it is clear that if the plant is to operate profitably and without becoming an endless drain on the resources of the long-suffering Italian taxpayer, thousands of additional jobs will have to be lost. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Down at heel”