- By Region
A court in southern Italy has triggered a political dispute and infuriated businesses by threatening to close one of Europe’s biggest steel plants on environmental grounds.
Critics say the decision, which puts thousands of jobs at risk and has sparked angry local clashes, highlights the confused legal environment that is stifling investment.
The court in Taranto, a port on the heel of Italy, has issued three contradictory rulings in less than a month on the fate of the Ilva steel plant, prompting impassioned pleas from government, the EU, trade unions and the business’s owners to spare the factory and save jobs.
The dispute hinges on studies suggesting that up to 386 people have died of cancer over the past 13 years, that mortality rates have risen, and that people living downwind of fumes from the plant have suffered adverse health effects.
Last month, the court ordered the arrest of eight of Ilva’s senior managers, including Emilio Riva, founder of the Riva Group which controls the plant. They remain under house arrest on suspicion of complicity in an “environmental disaster”.
But politicians and unions are desperate to avoid adding to Italy’s 10.8 per cent unemployment rate – 15.6 per cent in the southern region of Puglia – and deterring investors in a nation that the World Bank ranks lower than Mongolia and Albania in terms of ease of doing business.
“The situation risks creating uncertainty regarding the entire Italian industrial system and the reliability [of the country] for foreign investors,” Corrado Clini, the environment minister, told parliament this week.
Stefania Prestigiacomo, who was environment minister under the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, declared: “It seems that in Taranto there is a sort of Taliban judiciary who want to tear down a symbol.”
Following last month’s arrests, technicians began closing parts of the plant in accordance with the court’s wishes. But last week a fresh decision by the Taranto court said the plant could continue to operate while it cleaned up its production processes. Within days, however, the same court overturned the ruling – bringing fresh criticism of the judiciary.
Donato Stefanelli, leader of the Fiom trade union federation in Taranto, said the town “has been left to rot for too long”, and the controversy was drawing much-needed attention to environmental problems.
He blames the plant’s management and the government for long-term neglect, but is opposed to closing the plant.
“It would be a complete catastrophe to close Ilva. It would be dramatic for workers and the whole territory and it would put the whole sector on its knees,” he said.
“Why can’t Riva do what they do in their plants in Germany, where they are awarded prizes for respect of the environment?”
Mimmo Panarelli, leader of the Fim union in Taranto, said: “There is anger among workers – the atmosphere is unbearable. We are talking about families with only one income, who have mortgages to pay. . . Health, environment and work can live together, I am certain of this.”
However, several local citizens’ and environmental groups support closing the plant, and have clashed with workers demonstrating to keep it open.
Italian media interviewed an elderly Taranto resident who said: “Look how beautiful Taranto is. Why ruin it? They polluted the sea. . . I have met many people who have died of illnesses. The ruling by the judge [to close the plant] is correct. Sooner or later the bomb had to explode.”
Legambiente, one of Italy’s biggest environmental groups, has adopted a more balanced view, saying that “a different Ilva is possible” and the plant can be cleaned up without closing it and losing jobs.
The government in Rome has said it is ready to appeal to the constitutional court against the latest ruling in Taranto. Corrado Passera, the economic development minister, will travel to the region on Friday in search of a solution.
The government has already approved a €336m plan to clean up polluted areas around the plant.
Antonio Tajani, EU industry commissioner, called last month for the European Investment Bank to step in, and says EU funds earmarked for the Puglia region should be used to rescue the plant.
With a production of 8.4m tonnes last year, about 30 per cent of Italy’s steel output, the plant in Taranto employs more than 12,000 people directly and a further 8,000 indirectly.
In statements on its website, Riva Group says it respects all environmental regulations and that emissions from the plant are well within legal limits.