The horror of Taranto’s environmental disaster worsens. It is Italy’s most polluted city, and one of the foulest in the world. And the steel mills, iron foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, cement manufacturers, and shipyards that make it such a cesspool seem determined to keep it that way.
(I have written on the subject of Taranto’s horrible pollution problem previously; a reader suggested I revisit the topic again, in light of new developments.)
Protests for and against closing of the Ilva steel mill seem to happen there almost daily. There’s a new twist though: Workers say they are threatened with retaliation if they don’t pretend to demonstrate in favor of the mill and its continued operation.
Some 4,000 workers supposedly went on strike last week, in protest of a court order to close the gigantic plant due to excessive and dangerous levels of pollution. The closure would affect a workforce of 13,000. So far, the plant’s owners, Gruppo Riva, have ignored the court’s shut-down order.
That ruling, two months ago, had found Gruppo Riva guilty of causing a “deliberate environmental disaster on a major scale, aided and abetted by systematic corruption of public officials.” Gruppo Riva’s principals, Emilio Riva and his son Claudio, and a number of managers have been cited also for “criminal evasion” of repeated rulings to reform and clean up the “technologically decrepit” plant. Those individuals indicted were placed under house arrest, as of this writing.
The website WorkersLiberty.org reported on Oct. 3, “One section of the workforce organised by two of the main confederal unions – CISL and Uil – heeded a the call for a two day strike… a strike in support of the owners essentially. But a majority demurred or undertook other forms of protest…in support of the decision of the magistrates. The strike day thus underlined dramatically, tragically, grotesquely, a disastrous division amount the workers.
“All of these workers, their families and previous generations are the victims of an unending blizzard of poison vomited out from the largest and most polluted plant in Europe, (and one of the worst in the world).
“Official statistics – like all the other ‘official’ statements by the ‘experts’ over the years they are probably an underestimate — report 12,000 dead, and tens of thousands hospitalised and crippled by the variety of malignant cancers, over 50 years. “The technical details of the range of noxious substances are too long to enumerate here, but suffice to say that every year 2.7 tons of carbon monoxide and benzene sulphur oxide is absorbed by every worker and citizen in Taranto. Every child, every day has breathed the equivalent of 2.14 cigarettes. Each day the same child has had to change clothes on returning from school, shower and brush off the thin film of pink acrid dust that invades everything and everyone, as does the putrid smell. Near the plant, in the working class neighbourhoods, the kids are forbidden to play on the grass!”
The article goes on to complain that this is the first prosecution of the owners, after decades of clear flouting of environmental laws. Actually it is not. Emilio and Claudio Riva have each been charged, tried and convicted multiple times previously for such criminal and civil acts. Each time, however, they have either won on appeal, or run out the clock on the statute of limitations for serving their sentences.
Environmentalists and civic activists have been trying to force the courts to clean up the mill since at least 1982.
The Taranto steel works was built in the 1950s, as Italy tried to rebuild its industrial might after the devastation of World War II. The mill eventually employed up to 20,000 and transformed Taranto from a peaceful agrarian community on the azure coast of the Ionian Sea to a pollutant-belching, albeit strategically located, industrial hub.
The Italian Navy is also headquartered here, as are NATO’s naval operations.
Taranto has designs on being a tourism destination, but polluted water, skies and food supply severely limit its appeal.
Since 1995, Gruppo Riva has been running the plant, with the help of generous subsidies from the Italian government. The subsidies raise eyebrows now, in light of reports of Gruppo Riva’s profits of more than 3 billion euros the past two years.
Critics ask: Why not use funds equal to the subsidies to modernize the plant, and stop its pollution?
Gruppo Riva complains that installing all the pollution controls would wreck the mills’ profitability, require almost a complete overhaul and modernization of all the equipment, and probably cost thousands of workers their jobs.
The number of jobs at stake at Ilva is roughly equal to the number of people it is estimated the plant’s pollution has already killed.
October 8, 2012