Italy’s “cancer town” in battle over polluting steel plant

Owners of the polluting Ilva steelworks are under house arrest, and shutdowns have been ordered – but the plant has defenders despite sky-high cancer rates. 

chinadialogue reported on China’s cancer villages back in 2011. See the full report "Shadow over rural China.

In the neighbourhood over the fence from Italy’s – and Europe’s – biggest steelworks, Francesco Mastrocinque is poking his toe into the layer of black and red powder that covers every pavement and counting his friends who have died of cancer and respiratory illnesses.

“It’s about one a month, but people round here try not to think about it,” said the shopkeeper, as he looked up at the chimney towering over Taranto’s Tamburi quarter – a dark, dusty corner of Puglia, southern Italy, where residents are now forbidden by law from touching the soil.

The Ilva steelworks, owned by Italy’s Riva family, employs 12,000 and breathes life into the depressed local economy, but has long been accused of killing off local people by belching into the air a mix of minerals, metals and carcinogenic dioxins – 8.8% of the total dioxins emitted in Europe, according to a 2005 study. More recent government figures put the cancer death rate in the area at 15% above the national average and lung cancer deaths at 30% higher. Prosecutors say emissions have killed 400 people in 13 years.

So few were surprised when a magistrate this month ordered the shutdown of the most polluting furnaces, described Ilva as “an environmental disaster” and placed members of the Riva family under house arrest, claiming they were “perfectly aware” of what they were dumping on Taranto. A former employee was also put under investigation for allegedly paying off a government inspector to tone down a report.

But what happened next was less expected. Unions went on strike to protest against the magistrate’s decision, blocking roads with banners. “Dioxin levels have been reduced and emissions can be cut further with new technology, without stopping production,” said Rocco Palombella, secretary general of the UILM union. He has worked alongside the furnaces at Ilva for 36 years without, he says, falling ill.

The government then backed the unions, with the environment minister, Corrado Clini, saying it would take eight months for the furnaces to cool down, during which time Chinese competition would reap rewards. Bizarrely, Italy’s health minister warned that losing your job was detrimental to your health.

Clini, who met local leaders in Taranto earlier this month, promised cash to clean up Ilva. He also said health studies do not reflect emission cuts already made. “Clini is lying about this since the magistrate’s report is based on studies concluded this year,” said Angelo Bonelli, leader of the Green party in Italy. “We know that mothers in Taranto today have three times the allowed level of dioxins in their milk.”

In a region known for baroque towns like Lecce and traditional Trullo cottages tucked into olive groves, Taranto is the exception. Its skyline is dominated by smoking chimneys and its old town is a half abandoned collection of bricked up and crumbling palazzi.

Farmers were put out of business when grazing was banned within 20 kilometres of Ilva and almost 3,000 livestock with excessive dioxin levels were slaughtered. Mussel cultivation, for which Taranto is renowned, is struggling after beds were moved away from the steelworks.

“There isn’t a family in Tamburi without a sick or dead member thanks to Ilva,” said Rosella Balestra, a local activist. “People ignored it for a long time but now, when I talk to them, tears often come. Slowly, a wall of self denial is coming down.”

Despite initial suspicion among mothers, Balestra began warning children playing in the piazzas not to touch flower beds after she discovered the council had done little to publicise its ban on contact with the polluted soil.

Pollution is part of local life. Every day residents sweep their balconies clean of the red mineral dust blowing in from Ilva’s mountainous deposits and the black soot from its chimneys, which regularly clog storm drains.

“The magistrates launched their inquiry here when politicians failed to do their duty, and now the politicians are attacking the magistrates for doing theirs,” said Balestra.

According to Patrizio Mazza, a doctor, the dust is killing young and old. “I first noticed the increase when I treated a 10-year-old boy five years ago with throat cancer,” he said. “It is no good reducing emissions now because any new emissions at all simply top up the saturated earth and water. The furnaces must be shut down.”

A growing protest movement, which mounted a 2,000-strong march in Taranto this month, has found a champion in Cataldo Ranieri, a 42-year-old Ilva employee who initially backed management against the magistrates, blocking a road in protest in July. “A man came up to me that day and said, ‘My wife needs to get through to do her chemotherapy.’ That changed my life.”

Mazza said rates of tumours among Ilva staff who were campaigning to keep the plant open was 10 times higher than the national average. “Workers there just wanted to think about their work, not illness,” said Vincenzo Pignatelli, 60, who worked near the furnaces for 29 years and survived leukaemia after retiring in 2002. “Four colleagues in my group of about 100 died of leukaemia and I would see so many former colleagues during my trips to hospital it was like a works reunion.”

Bonelli shrugged off the government’s view that the local – and national – economy would suffer if Ilva closed its most polluting furnaces, saying: “Bilbao and Pittsburgh managed it thanks to investment, why not Taranto?”

In Tamburi, Francesco Mastrocinque watched as children kicked a football around on a dusty patch of earth, flouting the ban.

“The red mineral powder glitters in the gutters, but the black soot feels like fine sand when it gets into your mouth,” he said. “Ilva have paid for improvements in the neighbourhood, like putting fountains in the cemetery, but they didn’t clean the tombstones, which are slowly turning black and red.”


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