Today is Ferragosto when Italy normally sinks into a torpor and the most serious worry is whether there is space on your favorite beach or mountain path. But this year is not normal and the question of how to deal with the Ilva steelworks in Taranto cannot wait till September. Even Parliament is working in August.
It is rare that a single political issue has so many strands to unravel and even now, the battle lines are still muddled though they are becoming clearer day by day. The steelworks encapsulate some of Italy’s most intractable problems from the relationship between government and the courts (once again) to industrial restructuring (and the relationship between public and private responsibility), labour relations and health and environmental protection. It is a Big Issue, hot enough to override August lethargy. On Friday (17th. a very unauspicious day in Italian superstition), two cabinet ministers (Development and Environment but significantly, not Health) will be in Taranto to try and solve the problem while lawyers and engineers are working in Rome on other aspects.
The history is easily told. In 1965, the state owned Italsider company decided to set up a steel processing plant in Taranto. The economy needed steel in all forms for a booming economy, Taranto has one of the best ports in the Mediterranean to bring in the ore and the coal and take out at least some of the finished products and it is in the south which had a desperate need for jobs and development. It became the biggest steelworks in Europe.
But like any heavy industry, especially then, it was highly polluting. The combination of ferrous dust and coal smoke was and still is lethal. Cancers and respiratory conditions are significantly higher in Taranto directly correlated to the distance from the plant.
For years various authorities have tried to force first Italsider and the the Riva family which bought the steelworks in 1995, to reduce pollution to the legal limit, but without success. Court orders were ignored or promises made but not respected. Then a fortnight ago, the Taranto court ordered the judicial confiscation of the steelworks and set up a committee to manage the plant and see that anti-pollution measures were implemented, including if necessary plant closure. Management and government made new promises. The CEO, Bruno Ferrante, was appointed as the head of the court appointed oversight committee.
Then a week ago, the Investigating Magistrate, Patrizia Todisco, dropped a bombshell with an order interpreting the Court’s general verdict. She said first that Ferrante could not be part of the committee as he represents management which is responsible for the pollution and secondly, she said that “closure” means closure.
Today 11,500 are directly employed by Ilva, thousands of others depend on it indirectly and most of the other Italian steelworks depend on Taranto for semi-worked products. The Riva family has said they would have to close down their other steelworks in Liguria if Taranto closes, a thinly veiled threat. To turn off furnaces and close steel rolling mills would take months; many months more would be needed to install the anti-pollution measures and many more to restart. Years in all. In practice this would mean the end of steelmaking in Taranto and either downsizing or closure for the other plants as customers would not wait years for Taranto to restart. There is no doubt that fulfilling the court order immediately would be a major disaster, not just for Taranto and the Riva family but for the country’s whole industrial policy.
The Ilva question has once again laid bare the most serious issue in Italian politics today – the role, and rule of law. There are many failings in the administration of justice in Italy but the biggest in not the fault of the legal system. The Law is called upon to carry out functions it was never supposed to do. It is used as the remedy of first… and last resort for almost any conflict.
Health authorities and local government have a duty to apply anti-pollution regulations but in Taranto they have done nothing for years so that finally the courts were forced to intervene.
A government minister, Antonio Catricalà, has threatened to take the case to the Constitutional Court to resolve a supposed conflict between powers. He suggested that the magistrate had overstepped her powers and was managing national industrial policy. Since then, government has backtracked but if the Friday meeting does not stop the closure order, they might still go ahead.
Then there is the relationship between the Riva family and government over the question of who should pay for the cleanup. They contributed to both the major parties in the last elections which adds to public suspicion.
In civil society, the divisions are curious to say the least. Half the work force supports management demonstrating against the magistrate and overturning traditional labour relations. The more left wing FIOM has refused to demonstrate agaist the magistrates and supports immediate action to start the cleanup.
There is a surreal air to the whole business. In the shimmering southern summer heat steelworkers demonstrate on the Appian Way, Diocletian’s road to Egypt. They are demonstrating about a plant whose cycle is measured in years rather than closure tomorrow. With them management and government draw up appeals to different courts and yet another cleanup plan.
And meanwhile the red dust piles up and the people of Taranto cough and some die.
There is so far no Erin Brokovich who took on heavy industry and won but there is the great Apulian rapper, Caparezza who said it all in a 2008 number “Vieni a ballare in Puglia”, (“Come and dance in Apulia” “Tourist, you want iodine and sea air but you get the stink of sulphur; the devil’s arriving. You’ll get tanned with fright with Ilva’s dioxins, you’ll get red spots brighter than Milva’s hair”.
I don’t know where he’s playing today but it’ll take more than a good rapper to solve this August problem.