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Deadly Dust of Taranto

The town of Taranto on the heel of Italy lies in a region known for its picturesque baroque towns, stone cottages and olive groves. But this southern port city with its crumbling old town perched on an island at the entrance to a lagoon, is a dark exception; a forgotten place with a skyline dominated by smoking chimneys.

The Ilva steelworks - one of the biggest in Europe - employs more than 12,000 people in Taranto and indirectly supports another 8,000 jobs, breathing life into a depressed local economy. However, the factory has long been suspected of being a major health risk and the cause of serious environmental degradation, belching a mix of minerals, metals and carcinogenic dioxins into the air, day and night. A study in 2005 found that 8.8% of all the dioxins emitted in Europe came from the Ilva steel plant. More recent figures have put lung cancer mortalities in the area at 30% above the national average and the overall cancer death rate at 15% higher. People across the town complain of ongoing health problems that they say are directly linked to the factory emissions, while health experts continue to fight for further independent studies to be carried out.

In the Tamburi quarter, a poor neighbourhood in the shadows of the steel plant, residents are forbidden by law to touch the soil. Their decrepit, purpose-built apartment blocks are permanently coated in red mineral dust and a fine black soot.Within a 20 kilometre exclusion zone surrounding the factory, farmers have been banned from working the land, 3000 contaminated livestock have been slaughtered and now even Taranto's famous 'two seas' are choking under the pollution.

In July 2012, the saga surrounding Italy's largest steelworks took a dramatic turn; managers of the plant were placed under house arrest and local courts deemed the factory to be causing an environmental and public health catastrophe so severe that it should be forced to close immediately while a clean-up operation takes place. Prosecutors claimed that emissions had killed nearly 400 people in 13 years.

But the Italian government stepped in, arguing that competition from China would step in to take up the slack from Ilva's output. Following a series of contradictory court rulings, the steelworks are still operating while a decision to either 'clean-up' or 'shut down' is still to be reached.

As ongoing battles rumble on between politicians, local magistrates, industrial managers and trade unions, large numbers of local residents have taken to the streets for the first time, protesting at what they see as a culture of corruption and greed that has allowed the factory to operate in an irresponsible way for too long.

Slowly, a veil of self-denial is lifting. The people affected by the Ilva steelworks can no longer be ignored.
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