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How Italy’s biggest steel mill makes a mockery of EU environmental rules

TARANTO, Italy — Milena Cinto, Antonella Massaro and Mauro Zaratta blame the deaths of their children on pollution from a steel plant in this coastal town in southern Italy.

The sprawling plant is infamous for pollution that coats neighborhoods in fine red iron-ore dust, renders local waters unsuitable for mussel cultivation and — according to several experts — is a key factor explaining higher-than-average cancer rates among locals.

It’s been the subject of a fearsome tug-of-war between environmental and economic interests for more than a decade. And now the Italian government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi wants to ramp up production, promising to restore the plant known by its former name Ilva to its glory days as Europe’s biggest steel producer.

But to do so without a top-to-bottom overhaul of the plant’s activities would perpetuate an environmental and health catastrophe, according to local experts, activists, lawmakers, parents of children who believe pollution gave them cancer, and even some workers who are currently employed at the plant. Many want the plant shut down altogether. 

Not only is the plant continuing to spew toxic particles into the air and water, they argue, but the plans touted by the Italian government to green its production are a false promise of change in a town that has been suffering from an environmental crisis for decades.

These critics place a part of the blame for the inaction over Taranto’s steelworks on the doorstep of the European Commission in Brussels. The EU’s executive arm, they argue, has failed to enforce its own environmental laws in Taranto despite blatant violations and a seemingly endless game of warning, recrimination and — ultimately — inertia.

Pollution from the steel plant in Italy has rendered local waters unsuitable for mussel production | Photographs by Leonie Cater/POLITICO

Through a three-month examination of the EU’s start-and-stop efforts to address the environmental mess in Taranto, POLITICO found that over the course of more than a decade, the Italian government received several warnings from the Commission, after being sent to the EU’s highest court for inaction in 2011. But the EU executive has stalled its legal action since 2018, arguing the plant is on track to comply with EU environmental law, referring to information provided by the government. 

The pattern of hesitation and weak enforcement of European law in Taranto isn’t isolated.

According to an analysis of the past 50 years of so-called infringement proceedings launched by the Commission — legal action intended to force compliance with EU law — carried out by University of Rutgers Professor Daniel Keleman and University of Arizona Assistant Professor Tommaso Pavone, the European Commission has been steadily losing its appetite for confrontation with EU member countries over the enforcement of EU law, launching fewer legal challenges and bringing fewer cases to court since 2004.

But the case in Taranto is unique in terms of scale, health and environmental impact and how it appears to contravene the Commission’s central mission of making Europe into an environmental model for the world.

In response to POLITICO’s questions, the Italian government said the impacts of the main pollutants have been significantly reduced. Acciaierie d’Italia, the plant’s current operator, declined to comment, but statements published on its website make similar arguments.

A Commission official said the institution’s own work, alongside the efforts of the Italian authorities and judiciary since 2013, have “painfully put an end to what can be called one of the worst environmental disasters in Europe.”

Green MEP Rosa D’Amato, a Taranto native and vocal critic of the EU executive’s approach to the issue, disagreed, arguing that the EU executive has failed to protect its citizens.

“This is supposed to be a modern country in Europe,” she said. “The European Commission should be ashamed.”

Excessive health damage

Built in the 1960s, the plant transformed life in Taranto, quickly becoming the area’s main employer and the largest steel producer in Europe.

But the large-scale industrial activity meant the town, once a popular destination for Italian tourists seeking the health benefits of clean sea air, soon became synonymous with rampant pollution and fatal diseases.

As appetite for steel wound down in the 1970s and 1980s, the plant and the town surrounding it became locked in an economic-cum-environmental doom spiral: Worsening pollution hurt the town’s appeal and killed off other economic sectors like mussel cultivation, making residents even more dependent on the plant’s diminishing stock of jobs.

Today, Taranto is still home to one of Europe’s worst pollution cases — which local doctors link to local life expectancy that is below average for Italy and a high prevalence of cancer among plant workers and residents of surrounding neighborhoods, including children.

In 2019, Milena Cinto and Donato Vaccaro lost their son Francesco following a 14-year battle with autoimmune hemolytic anemia, a rare immune disorder. Vaccaro, 61, used to work at the steel plant.

When the illness reached Francesco’s brain, there was nothing more they could do. He died at 20 years old. “He accepted the situation but he still never surrendered and never stopped fighting against this condition,” said Cinto, his mother, sitting in the living room of the family’s apartment in Tamburi, the neighborhood closest to the steel plant.

The family’s story is not uncommon in Taranto — particularly in the Tamburi neighborhood, where streets and apartment blocks are coated with red iron ore dust from the plant. POLITICO spoke to four other families who shared stories of personal loss and suffering related to rare forms of cancer and other diseases.

Antonella Massaro and her husband, who worked at the plant, lost their 5-year-old daughter Emilia to cancer in 2008. Lorenzo Zaratta, also 5, died in 2014 of a brain tumor; during the autopsy, iron, steel, zinc, silicon and aluminum were found in his brain.

The public prosecutor’s office found that poisonous emissions from the plant had killed Lorenzo, causing nine former plant managers and officials of the plant to be remanded for trial on charges of manslaughter. A court hearing is scheduled for July 12, according to Mauro Zaratta, Lorenzo’s father.

In most cases, establishing a direct connection between pollution from the plant and a fatal illness is not straightforward — a recurring problem for legal cases seeking compensation for the impacts of environmental pollution.

Even when there is “overwhelming evidence on the negative health impact of air pollution on the population … it’s hard to isolate the health impacts of air pollution from all other stressors a person faces,” said Bellinda Bartolucci, a senior lawyer at legal charity ClientEarth.

Donato Vaccaro and Milena Cinto lost their son, Francesco, to a rare immune disorder that he’d battled since age 6.

In Francesco’s case, doctors could not say with certainty that the illness was a result of local pollution, but his mother said one told her it was “probable.” 

A number of recent studies suggest at least a strong correlation between the level of pollution and the high incidence rate of various illnesses in the area.

One demonstrated the impact of the industrial pollutant PM10 on mortality in the area, particularly on its older population. Another found a link between higher levels of fine particulate matter in ambient air and anemia in children under 5.

Cancer incidence, child mortality, and mortality rates for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are all higher in the area compared with regional and national averages, according to a 2019 report published by the Italian health authorities.

Excess diseases and mortality have been “repeatedly documented” in Taranto, the World Health Organization said in 2021, calling the population’s health profile “concerning.”

For residents like Vaccaro and Cinto, who still live in the same apartment Francesco grew up in, these damning reports offer some confirmation but little solace.

Knowledge of the dangers posed by the pollution pumped out by the plant next door means housing prices have plummeted. Their home is worth so little that they can’t afford to leave.

“We feel like rats in a cage,” said Cinto. “And it’s certainly not a gilded cage.” 

Valerio Cecinati, who heads the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Unit at Taranto’s Santissima Annunziata hospital, said there’s no question the plant should be shut down.

“Speaking as a doctor and as a citizen, I think it should simply be closed, plain and simple,” he said. “Because if there are young children being afflicted by multiple diseases … It’s not worth the risk.”

A strategic industry

The Italian government says it has no intention of closing down the plant.

At a speech in June, Draghi said the government intends to restore the steelworks — still frequently referred to by the name of its former owners, Ilva — to its glory days.

“It was the largest steel mill in Europe,” Draghi said. “We cannot afford not to produce at the levels at which it is capable of, at which it still produces today.”

That’s partly related to the war in Ukraine, which “has created a major disruption in the supply chain of the steel industry and has raised the awareness of the strategic importance of producing primary steel,” said an Italian government official.

The EU covers about 26 percent of its steel consumption through imports, with Russia, Ukraine and China among the top 10 exporters to the bloc. 

At its peak in the 1970s, the plant produced 11.5 million tons of steel a year. In 2021, it produced an estimated 4.4 million tons.

The steep dip in its production is, in part, a result of fights with Brussels and the Italian judiciary over the plant’s environmental and health impacts.

The first major fight over the plant broke out in 2008: It lacked an authorization for industrial installations as required under EU law. That resulted in a ruling against Italy from the EU’s highest court following legal action from the Commission, prompting the country to issue an authorization in 2011.

In 2012, Italian judges ordered the closure of the plant’s most polluting parts following the publication of a report that demonstrated the plant’s impacts on the environment and human health. It had to happen, said judge Patrizia Todisco, “so that not another child, not another inhabitant of this unlucky city, not another Ilva worker, will still get sick or die.”

But in the years that followed, the government started issuing a set of so-called “Save-Ilva” decrees — 12 in total — that allowed the plant to resume steel production while also mandating that it carry out upgrades to make it legally compliant.

“Those decrees can generally be described as trying to accommodate the actual practices of the plant, rather than to strengthen significantly and adequately the standards that the plant should be abiding by,” said ​​U.N. Special Rapporteur on Toxics and Human Rights Marcos Orellana, who went on a mission to Taranto in December.

Locals say on each story of this house in the Tamburi neighborhood, which celebrates the birth of a girl, a person has died of the same type of cancer.

Responding to a stream of petitions and complaints from local activists, the Commission started another round of infringement proceedings against Italy in 2013 and sent another warning in 2014 with several complaints. They included Italy’s failure to reduce “the high level of uncontrolled emissions” and its “inadequate management of by-products and wastes, and insufficient protection and monitoring of soil and groundwater.

Its final warning threatened to take Italy to the EU’s highest court — again. 

That didn’t end up happening. In 2018, the Commission froze proceedings for sending Italy to the Court of Justice of the EU.

When the plant was nationalized and leased to ArcelorMittal in 2017, “commitments” were made that “seemed to address Commission concerns,” a Commission official said. A visit to the plant convinced the Commission that “all relevant improvements were on track” to be completed by August 2023 — a deadline extension granted by the government in 2017.

The EU executive declined to provide further details on its reasoning, stating that infringement cases are confidential.

The same year the Commission froze its proceedings, Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government had failed to take citizens’ and workers’ health into account when issuing its decrees. The following year, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for failing to protect its citizens from the plant’s pollution.

In May of this year, the ECHR issued four new sentences against the country, following employee complaints filed between 2016 and 2019 and complaints from more than 200 people living in or near Taranto. 

The Italian authorities haven’t “provided precise information on the actual implementation of the environmental plan,” the court ruled — in contrast with the Commission’s assessment that the plant was on track to meet environmental requirements.   

A Commission official held that the institution is “not a party in the procedures before the [ECHR]” and so can’t judge the information provided to the Court by the Italian authorities. They added that the case’s legal base differs from the Commission’s infringement procedure.

The Commission is “closely monitoring the situation and the final deadline of August 2023 for the prescriptions in the environmental permit should be met according to the Italian authorities,” the official said.

“If people are still paying an unacceptable price it is because the size and magnitude of past pollution cannot be solved in a short period of time,” the official added.

Let down by Brussels

D’Amato, the Green MEP from Taranto, doesn’t mince her words. The Commission, she says, is failing to hold Italy to account.

“I think that the Commission is knowingly lying here,” she said in a meeting at the European Parliament, in which the Commission defended its handling of the proceedings against Italy.

D’Amato has written several letters to the Commission, which she shared with POLITICO, pushing it to take further action beyond stalled infringement procedures. 

“The European Court of Human Rights has handed down a ruling, as has the Constitutional Court in Italy,” she said. “The Commission should have the courage to condemn Italy for what it’s doing and take it to the Court of Justice.”

In an interview at her Brussels office, the 53-year-old lawmaker said she’s frustrated by the Commission’s reliance on information from the Italian government during the infringement procedure.

D’Amato has sent the EU executive videos dated 2021 and 2022, also shared with POLITICO, that she says show unsafe working practices within the factory.

Her push is backed by several campaign groups, as well as locals who have brought forward a host of petitions calling on the Commission to act. 

Marescotti, a local Taranto campaigner with the NGO Peacelink, has repeatedly urged the EU executive to condemn and sanction Italy over non-compliance with EU environmental legislation, letters shared with POLITICO show. Ultimately he wants the plant to be shut down.

Riccardo Nigro, a campaign coordinator for the European Environmental Bureau, an NGO, said the fact Italy has not felt the consequences of failing to address pollution in Taranto demonstrates the “limited power [EU institutions] have when it comes to enforcing EU legislation.”

He added that he hopes an ongoing revision of an EU law on industrial emissions “will ensure more rights to citizens and civil society to bring polluters to court when they fail to comply with the law.” 

The Italian government’s answer to campaigners’ concerns is a so-called decarbonization plan for the plant, which it says is in line with the bloc’s broader ambition to green the steel industry.

Details of the plan are sparse. In response to a request for comment, a government official said: “Total investments of the plan will amount to €4.7 billion.” The money will go into the electrification of furnaces, hydrogen technologies and other measures to reduce the plant’s carbon footprint.

Neither the government nor the company have made the sources of financing for the project public. 

These promises come at a time when a host of factors, including the war in Ukraine and inflation, threaten to buffet the Italian economy. 

According to documents obtained by POLITICO, Italy attempted to tap money from the bloc’s Recovery and Resilience Facility to revamp the plant, leading to political pressure from Green MEPs, who argued the plant doesn’t comply with EU law. The Commission ultimately did not approve the plans.

Asked about the plant’s impact on local health, the official argued that those concerns are based on outdated studies and said the “current pollution impact on health is compliant with national and international environmental standards.”

“The option of shutting down the plant is not on the table,” the official added.

Emails sent by POLITICO requesting comment from the Italian government were initially forwarded to Acciaierie d’Italia, the company that operates the plant. The company previously declined requests for a visit to the plant and an interview with its management.

According to its website, the company has earmarked €1.15 billion to complete the improvement measures previously agreed with the government and is on track to meet the August 2023 deadline. In April, it published a lengthy defense in which it argued that the pollution could also be caused by other industries in the region.

It has also publicly stated that it seeks to ramp up production: Its target for this year is a 40-percent increase compared with 2021.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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