[UPDATE: Was I too tough on Taranto about its pollution problems in this article? I don’t think so, based on the announcement by Italian prosecutors in early October that they were ordering Taranto’s giant Ilva steel mill to shut down its operations, because it is causing an “environmental disaster” with its pollution of the area’s air, agriculture and water. Tumors, tremors and “many deaths” have been caused by the pollution, prosecutors say.]
Taranto certainly has a lot going for it. It is at the historic crossroads of the Magna Grecia and the Appian Way. It has a large, natural harbor of turquoise waters. And its climate is mild and moderate most times of the year.
But what a cesspool it has become – through centuries of corruption, mismanagement, greed and uncontrolled industrial development. The past 50 years of industrial growth have been especially egregious.
Here are 10 good reasons to cross it off your list of must-see destinations in Italy:
1. Taranto is not only the most polluted city in Italy (take that, Naples, Genoa and Gela, Sicily), it is the most polluted city in all of Western Europe. In fact, its pollution levels are approaching those of the world’s most polluted cities (most of which are in China). Don’t blame people, cars or weather-related anomalies; 93 percent of Taranto’s pollution comes from its relatively unregulated industries: Steel mills and iron foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, cement manufacture, a container port, shipyards, and food-processing factories. Italy has identified it as one of the country’s “Sites of National Interest” for extreme pollution.
2. Only in Taranto can you experience accumulated dioxin levels that are three times the levels of those found in the 1976 Seveso disaster -the result of which caused an entire Italian town to be evacuated – permanently.
Most of the dioxin has been traced to the ILVA steel mill; a drive past it is truly frightening – the highway outside has turned rust-red, road signs have corroded away, and vegetation seems burnt.
3. Every year, the city’s nearly 200,000 inhabitants (third largest in southern Italy) and unsuspecting visitors inhale 2.7 tons of carbon monoxide and 57.7 tons of carbon dioxide.
4. The city’s Mar Piccolo (or small sea), which is fed by brackish seawater and undrinkable freshwater springs (“Citri”), is the site of huge mussel- and fish-farming operations. It is unclear where the mussels and fish raised in these questionable conditions are consumed. To be safe, you may wish to opt for something besides the fish in local restaurants, markets or seafood vendors. Also: Stick to bottled water.
5. Layoffs at the steel mills and other industries have contributed to a spike in area unemployment – above Italy’s double-digit countrywide jobless levels. There’s been a corresponding increase in crime, and a decrease in public safety.
6. The city’s mayor was convicted of corruption and sent to prison in 2006, for a scandal involving regulation, or lack thereof, of polluters.
7. The city declared bankruptcy in 2005 – with nearly $1 billion of debt – in one of the largest cases of municipal bankruptcy in history. A receiver was appointed by a court, to take over administration of the city’s finances, after it was found local officials were too corrupt or incompetent to be entrusted with the city’s purse strings any longer. Basic city functions have yet to be restored to levels that might be expected of a city of this size; trash pickup, in particular, seems to be a lost concept.
8. The city is a main base of the Italian navy. The navy maintains a strong presence here, with all the warships, combat aircraft and support personnel one might expect. The navy is a comparatively responsible citizen, however, when considered against the area’s industrial complex. Taranto’s strategic importance in history has led to it being burned, bombed, attacked and sacked at fairly regular intervals. Half the Italian Navy was sunk here by the British in 1940; the success of the raid inspired the Japanese in 1941 to bomb Pearl Harbor.
9. Traffic is atrocious. The main thoroughfare through town crosses a one-lane medieval bridge. It might have been adequate for chariot traffic 2,000 years ago. You can imagine what it is like today – especially with the anarchic style of Italian motorists thrown into the mix.
10. I stopped along a beach, south of downtown. The aquamarine water looked inviting. But the beach itself – although it was crowded with thousands of sweating Italians attired in appalling speedos and Brazilian bikinis – was filthy, as far as the eye could see. Not surprisingly, the bay is polluted by unregulated agricultural waste (pesticides and animal waste), heavy metals (including PCBs and PAHs) and polluted waste water discharged by industries, municipal garbage and at least 14 human sewage discharge pipes. When I saw a used tampon floating in the water, that was pretty much all the motivation I needed to get in my car and leave Taranto forever.
P.S. Taranto, home of some nasty-looking but usually non-fatal spiders, is the source of the word “Tarantula”.
[Editor’s Note: Other finalists in the “race to the bottom” as Italy’s worst tourist destination were gritty downtown Naples, considered the petty crime and pickpocket capital of Italy; and Palermo and Gela in Sicily, bastions of mafia crime and political, municipal and industrial corruption.]
May 12, 2012