The Italian town where the air is lethal
A man walks past a graffiti reading, “Attention, polluted city” in Taranto’s Tamburi district. (Reuters: Tony Gentile)
Italy’s faltering economy and booming corruption problem has cruelled the opportunity to save a whole city from some of the worst industrial pollution in Europe.
When Grazia Parisi first began treating sick children, she hoped she could bring every one of them back to health.
Now, when the paediatrician ushers them into the cool, white-washed room she keeps on Via d’Aquino, she simply dreads what she’ll find.
Grazia Parisi says she is 50 per cent more likely than other doctors in her region to find a patient harbouring a tumour. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
“I never know,” she says. “I have lost many children in 24 years of work.”
The problem is Parisi lives in Taranto. So do her patients.
For generations, the city was famous for its ink-black mussels and its Citta Vecchia, an old quarter that dates as far back as the 8th century BC. Now, the mussels are toxic and can’t be eaten. And on most days, Taranto’s cobbled heart is entombed in a lethal film of soot.
The nitrogen dioxide (11,000 tonnes in a year), sulphur dioxide (11,300 tonnes) and hydrochloric acid (seven tonnes) are grandly dispensed by the candycane smokestacks of the sprawling Ilva steelworks, which encircles Taranto’s northern flank. There are 215 industrial chimneys in all.
When a southerly blows into town, the schools have to close; sometimes as often as five days a month. In 2010, the local council issued an order that prohibited children from playing outside because of soil contamination. The local college of surgeons publicly recommended children shower every time they come in from outside.
Taranto’s old quarter dates back to the 8th century. These days it’s covered in soot from the Ilva steelworks. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Most dangerous is the fine dust that accumulates in small drifts like char on windscreen wipers, and in window grooves or between courtyard pavers. It’s lifted into the sky from the stockpiles of iron ore and coking coal that cover an area the size of 90 football fields, and which directly border the Taranto cemetery. In 2010, 4,000 tonnes of this dust fell over the town.
It looks like common grit, but pass a magnet over it, and it levitates. Much of the haze you breathe in Taranto is, in fact, laced with metal.
“You have to imagine a baby stroller, a child’s pram, full of minerals.” Grazia Parisi makes a scooping motion at the side of her head.
“I have seen children arrive with minerals in their ears because they had walked in the wind,” she says. “Imagine that.”
Even from the street outside, you can hear the cries in Parisi’s rooms. They ricochet from tiles to vaulted ceiling, and back again. There are infants who rattle with smokers’ cough. Parents wait, shell-shocked.
Compared with the region which surrounds Taranto, the statistics are dystopian. Lung cancer deaths are 30 per cent higher and deaths from serious respiratory disease in men are 50 per cent higher.
A man walks past a graffiti reading “Steel or life, you have to choose” in Taranto. (Reuters: Tony Gentile)
In the 12 years to 2010, the pollution in Taranto was directly linked to 237 malignant tumours, 247 heart attacks and 937 hospitalisations for respiratory illness.
Grazia Parisi says she is 50 per cent more likely than her counterparts elsewhere in Puglia to discover her client is harbouring a tumour in a dark little fold of their body.
“When you are facing a government that decides to sacrifice an entire city for an economic issue how are you supposed to feel?” Parisi asks. “Life has no value here.”
Six years ago, an epidemiological study tendered in court rocked the country: the deaths of 386 people in Taranto between 1998 and 2010 could be directly traced to their exposure to industrial pollution.
An anchor of salvation, and a deadman’s weight
Fabio Cocco works the nightshift at Ilva. When he finishes at 7 o’clock, he lights a smoke and nudges home his Skoda Fabia. He needs to be there in time to take his six-year-old daughter to school.
Fabio Cocco, a father of three, works the night shift at Taranto steelworks. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
At home — a small tiled apartment on the top floor of an inner city building — the family crashes about the combined kitchen and lounge. Cocco’s two older boys also live at home; the 22-year-old who can’t find work shares his bedroom with a heavily pregnant girlfriend.
“A job at Ilva is a lifeline,” he says. He uses the term ancora di salvezza, or anchor of salvation. Ilva is a kind of deliverance yes, but one with a deadman’s weight.
“As a worker you arrive at a certain point where you can’t pretend.” Cocco says. “I have been to many funerals of friends or acquaintances and they are all dead because of the pollution caused by the factory.”
But what to do? With deep ties to Taranto and a young family, Fabio Cocco sees no path other than the one in front of him. He’s not alone.
The Ilva steelworks has propped up the economy of southern Italy since 1965. Built by a state enterprise, but sold into private hands in 1995, it remains the largest steelworks in the European Union.
In some years it has easily contributed three-quarters of Taranto’s economic output, and at its peak could produce 10 million tonnes of steel a year, or about 40 per cent of Italy’s steel.
Fabio Cucco needs his job at the Ilva steelworks to support his young family. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
About 10,000 people work there, and there are that number again in the count of contractors dependent on the plant. In 2016, the Ilva Group generated 2.2 billion euros. The plant’s dominance — physical and economic — has effectively swallowed Taranto’s other industries, agriculture and tourism among them.
It’s not unfamiliar to many Australians. A 2015 study found unemployment would double in the NSW Illawarra should the Bluescope steelworks at Port Kembla disappear, leaving behind a $3.3 billion crater in the local economy.
In 2016, thousands of workers at the Whyalla steelworks in South Australia were forced to take a 10 per cent pay cut to attract a buyer to the plant, as it tottered under the weight of more than $4 billion of debt.
But unlike Australia, Italy is yet to recover from the global financial crisis, a decade on. Of the major economies savaged by the global collapse, only Greece has suffered a more profound depression.
In September, unemployment in Italy was above 10 per cent (Australia’s unemployment rate is generally half that). And in southern Italy, youth unemployment has hovered between 50 and 60 per cent for the past five years (in Australia, it was 11.4 per cent in September).
A worker adjusts his uniform outside Ilva’s steel plant in Taranto. (Reuters: Alessandro Bianchi)
Italy’s debt is running at 132 per cent of GDP, its infrastructure is in steady, if gradual collapse, and living standards haven’t changed in real terms in 20 years.
In 2016, there were 18 million Italians at risk of poverty, up from just 3 million 10 years earlier. Predictably, the underworld is thriving. Young people are taking up the opportunity to leave if it’s presented to them; others are being recruited by organised crime.
In the face of this wreckage, it’s easy to imagine that simply shutting Ilva down — and putting its vast workforce on the breadline — would sink southern Italy into bankruptcy.
And yet, in July 2012, that’s almost what happened. For several weeks the furnaces went cold when the plant was seized by the courts, and its managers, along with some of Taranto’s most high-profile figures, were indicted. Prosecutors alleged they had conspired to let the plant pollute at will.
‘There was a great corruption’
An Ilva worker hangs a sign reading “Ilva. Criminal impunity = legal massacre – Prisoners in our city”. (Reuters: Crispian Balmer)
Taranto is divided between those who close their ears and eyes to the smog and — it must be said — to the funeral notices, and those who rabidly campaign for Ilva’s closure. But it should never have been this binary.
As far back as 1990, Taranto was declared “an area of high risk of environmental crisis”. A national plan for the city’s protection and recovery was established by the President in April 1998.
But the measures designed to prevent the dust storms, and the dumping of toxic sludge, appear never to have been implemented. Instead, the budgets set aside to shelter Taranto from the worst excesses of its sprawling industrial neighbour were creamed as profit.
The first arrests came in 2005. Two years later, the chief executive and the plant’s technical manager were sentenced to three years in prison for the grand environmental damage wrought on the town.
In 2010, a much larger criminal probe was launched. Surveillance teams were deployed and a wider net was cast. Five years later, no fewer than 44 people were formally placed under investigation.
Rinaldo Melucci was elected as Taranto’s mayor in 2017. He said the city had previously experienced “great corruption”. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Among them, the former regional governor, the former mayor and deputy mayor of Taranto and a suite of factory executives. Even Benigno Papa, Taranto’s former archbishop, had to take the stand to answer questions about a 10,000-euro transaction.
While prosecutors alleged the money was a bribe paid by Ilva to a professor preparing an environmental report, Ilva’s lawyers suggested it was actually money for the church. In early October, Monsignor Papa took the stand in support of Ilva’s versions of events. The court is yet to rule on the question.
Rinaldo Melucci, who was elected as the new mayor last year, describes the graft as a “complete system”.
“There was a great corruption,” he tells the ABC. While it didn’t always turn on huge sums of money, it drew together a galaxy of local institutions including “regional governors, mayors, deputy mayors … the newspapers, some schools”.
Prosecutors say it was a “criminal conspiracy” designed to commit offences “against public safety”.
Most damning perhaps was a preliminary finding in May 2013, when the presiding judge issued a sequestration order against Ilva’s owners, the Riva Group, equivalent to 8.1 billion euros.
That was how much the company had been required to spend on environmental protections. Instead, it was money Ilva had simply trousered.
In January 2015, the plant’s operating company was placed in administration. The plant’s future was again uncertain.
A dying boy becomes a national symbol
Doctors found traces of iron, steel, zinc, aluminium and silicon in Lorenzo’s brain. (Supplied)
When the extent of the corruption was laid bare, Taranto erupted in protests.
The town was stricken by grief and fear, and took to the streets. Some campaigned for jobs, others for those they had lost. Even the elderly screamed themselves hoarse.
Among the placards and megaphones was a three-year-old boy named Lorenzo Zaratta. He wanted to join in, and his father Mauro indulged him.
Lorenzo Zaratta (left) was just three months old when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. (Supplied)
Diagnosed at just three months old with a brain tumour, the boy had by then survived a barrage of surgery. He was feeling better.
“He had great strength and he shared it with everyone,” Mauro says. The march made them both feel as though they were making a difference. “Lorenzo performed miracles.”
But whatever hope Mauro felt at the time, it was misplaced. In July 2014, Lorenzo died.
In death, Lorenzo Zaratta has become a national symbol for everything that has gone wrong in Taranto. His name adorned banners in later street protests, and his photograph haunted nightly news programs.
Perhaps most critically, his suffering has provided crucial evidence for the criminal case.
When Lorenzo’s brain was examined, the scan was astonishing. It contained what it never should have: traces of iron, steel, zinc, aluminium and silicon.
“The only food he ate was his mother’s milk,” Mauro says. “He drank milk from his mother, he breathed polluted air.”
Zaratta took his son’s case to Rome, publicly testifying in June before the new minister for economic development Luigi Di Maio.
A political betrayal
A rising star of left-wing Italian politics, leader of the so-called 5 Star Movement, Di Maio had pledged to shut the plant: “This is not a civilised country if we blackmail people to work in a harmful environment.”
At the March election, however, 5 Star was forced into an awkward power-sharing deal with The League, a far-right party. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, had promised the plant would remain open, and only one of them was going to be able to keep their promise. Di Maio was soon pedalling backwards.
By September, the government had approved an agreement between the plant’s new owners — Indian steel multinational Arcelor Mittal — and labour unions. The plant would stay open.
Arcelor Mittal, which itself boasts a chequered history of price-fixing and environmental violations across the globe, has pledged to spend 1.1 billion euros to curb its toxic emissions.
But the terms of the agreement have disappointed many. The full complement of environmental protections are not required to be in place until 2023. Arcelor Mittal has been promised immunity from future prosecution, a condition which Rinaldo Melucci says helped to “seal the deal”.
Mauro Zaratta quit Taranto for Florence to be with Lorenzo while he spent years undergoing specialist treatment. Now he has pledged never to return. But for so many others, they see no way out.
For them, it seems not much will change. The smokestacks continue to rake at the sky, and parents consult online dust forecasts as others might check the weather.
Grazia Parisi says the people of the town have been “abandoned”, but she can’t bring herself to leave either. Who would treat her patients?
And Fabio Cocco has little choice but to continue to show up for his night shifts at the furnace.
One can only hope they never meet.
Watch this story on 7.30 on iview.