There is no doubt to confirm: The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the world to change painfully. In an Italian city, the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has even doubled the crisis they have been suffering from.
Taranto was a picturesque city on the Ionian coast in the Puglia region, until it was chosen as the site of Europe’s largest steel mill. Pollution and disease began to take away the inherent beauty of the city, before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated what was happening here by placing people in a dilemma.
On so-called days “windy day“Taranto advises its residents to close their windows to prevent pollutants from blowing off from the steel mill. But at the same time, schools and offices are required to open windows whenever they can to stop them.” push ventilation to reduce the spread of disease.
Taranto steel plant was put into operation in 1964.
In the dark of the steel mill
Taranto steel factory opened in 1964 brought jobs, wealth to the city in particular and contributed to the heavy industry of Italy in general. It employs 11,000 people, more than any other company in Taranto and accounts for 75% of the region’s GDP.
For the first 30 years, the Taranto steel mill was run by the state. In 1995, it was acquired by a private entity, the Gruppo Riva. But after a scandal in 2012, all senior executives of Gruppo Riva were arrested on charges of causing an environmental disaster.
The level of air pollution in the city of Taranto increases, leading to an unusually high rate of cancer and heart disease around the factory area. The Taranto steel mill was later confiscated by the state, before it sold it to India’s largest steel giant ArcelorMittal in 2018.
The steel industry clearly brought wealth to Taranto, but it also had consequences of pollution. In 2006, Taranto alone emitted 92% of the dioxin across Italy. A 2012 survey found that average cancer levels in the city were about 30% higher than elsewhere. Childhood cancer is 54% higher than that of the Puglia region.
Mina Valentino, a pediatrician who worked for 25 years at Taranto, said before the city had to face COVID-19, there was a “silent epidemic “ happening here. “I see breathing problems, coughs that are difficult to treat, malignancies in infants, children with brain development problems due to not spending enough time outdoors and skin problems”Said Valentino.
Pollution at the Taranto steel mill has been a problem that has persisted for more than half a century.
A dual threat
The first wave of COVID-19 hit heavily in northern Italy but somewhat indulgent regions like Taranto. As of before September, the rate of infection in the city was less than 1 / 1,500 residents. But by the end of November, the number started to increase dramatically. More than 1% of the population in Taranto is infected.
At the same time, Taranto suffers “wind day“of them when a high pressure area appears in the northwest causing the wind to pour in from the steel mill. The winds carry steel dust over the city center.”
Although the frequency varies with the season, these windy days will appear on average several times a month. Residents are advised to stay indoors, with schools and offices with windows closed.
Ironically, national regulations require schools to open windows to ensure ventilation, in order to reduce transmission of COVID-19. By then, high schools were closed across Italy but elementary and middle schools remained open, even in the Tamburi district closest to the Taranto steel mill.
The dilemma puts teachers and school leaders in a difficult position. An unnamed teacher said the school is afraid to be blamed if they don’t open their doors and make their students sick. But opening the door also exposes students to the polluted air from the steel mill.
Dr. Valentino said the closure to avoid factory pollution was completely meaningless and could not protect the children in Taranto, especially in the Tamburi district, where about 18,000 people live, away from the wall. of the steel mill is exactly 135 m.
The school in Taranto is just a few hundred meters from the steel mill.
“Closing schools is also not enough to protect children’s health, as when children are not in school, they remain outdoors and are exposed to even more polluted air.“says Dr. Valention.
“The problem is not closing or opening windows or not. The problem is that the school itself is a must-go. If you look at the location of this school on the map it is only four streets from the factory. Pollution is a situation that occurs every day, regardless of whether the wind blows or not and from which direction.
Time to close?
Alessandro Marescotti, a teacher at Taranto, has spent 20 years advocating for solutions to the city’s problems. He and his organization, Peacelink, helped make data available demonstrating the pollution level of steel mills in the region.
During his time as an active man, Marescotti shared that he suffered a lot of backlash, including threats to his life. “It’s like asking a heavy smoker to stop “Marescotti said. “You won’t get their approval right away.”
Actions by the authorities to deal with the pollution have been slow. In 2012, Taranto’s prosecutor ordered the confiscation of the plant from then-owner Gruppo Riva. The factory’s managers were accused of failing to fulfill their responsibility to control pollution levels.
After a series of appeals, the proceedings are still in progress, but some members of the Riva family have been acquitted. The Italian central government then intervened to allow the plant to continue production with a series of unusual ordinances believed to have disrupted the judicial system and ignored environmental goals.
Alessandro Marescotti, a teacher at Taranto, has spent 20 years advocating for a solution to the city’s problem.
”All of Italy is now Taranto ‘
Some hope the COVID-19 dilemma will encourage action at the national level to tackle the pollution problem in Taranto. Antonio Marinaro, president of Taranto’s Confindustria industry association, said: “All of Italy is now Taranto.
“The work-health relationship is a problem for Italy right now. But we’ve been having this problem in Taranto for over 50 years. ”
The solution Marinaro leaned in was arguably less extreme than the shutdown. He said: ““We should work with the industry through technology to solve environmental problems, while pointing to advances in electric steel production and the potential to use hydrogen as a fuel source.”
“We have to remember that the Ilva steel mill (its old name) used to represent 0.2% of Italy’s GDP. It will be a great loss for the Italian economy to lose this asset “, Marinaro adds. “Shutting down an industry loses political interest. When you close down the factory, no one will be interested in improving the environment in the region.”
A march in May 2019 in Taranto.
Dr. Annamaria Moschetti, another pediatrician and campaigner, said: “In Taranto, we went through a public health crisis. COVID-19 simply added emphasis to this crisis, showing just how serious it was. Public opinion is now more sympathetic to Taranto’s case and pay more attention to it “.
Decades of industrial pollution have transformed the city’s economic, social and environmental patterns. Moschetti, along with Valentino and Marescotti, hopes that public sympathy will lead to actions that can improve the health of the Taranto people.
“We have been through decades of illness so can’t expect to be able to fix it in the blink of an eye”Said Valentino. “But we have to start somewhere. ”