AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to a fight in Italy over environmental health and the economy. The Italian government has reversed a court order that seized parts of Europe's biggest steel plant. The plant was spewing out dangerous particles. The Italian government says it wants to keep the plant running in order to safeguard thousands of jobs at a time of rising unemployment.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has the story from the port city of Taranto.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI BYLINE: Taranto's skyline is dotted with giant cranes and smokestacks of the Ilva steel plant belching dark clouds of polluting smoke for miles around. Outside the port, some 30 cargo ships have been at anchor for weeks, waiting to load Ilva's court-impounded products.
Workers' representative Antonello Piccolo says trade unions have above all defended job security. He's worried about the court ruling's possible repercussions.
ANTONELLO PICCOLO: (Through Translator) The court's insistence on a shutdown could leave 20,000 people jobless. And the government knows it would have grave consequences for the entire economy.
BYLINE: In July, a court ordered the plant's partial shutdown and the arrest of seven managers, including owner Emilio Riva, suspected of knowingly causing an environmental disaster. But the government reversed the shutdown order, saying that Ilva is of strategic importance and that its closure would have a ripple effect on other steel plants and would drain more than $10 billion annually nationwide.
While the judicial showdown continues, Taranto's air is heavy with the smell and taste of metal. Court-ordered medical tests revealed high levels of carcinogenic particles, including dioxins and PCBs in the air and soil. A municipal ordinance bans children from playing on dirt lots.
Dr. Patrizio Mazza, head of the hematology department at Taranto Hospital, has long been raising the alarm about the city's high cancer rates.
DR. PATRIZIO MAZZA: Data has shown that the increase in men is about 40 percent, the increase in women is about 20 percent, the same in the children.
BYLINE: When the 3 P.M. shift ends, workers pour out of the plant gates.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
BYLINE: One worker says, it's all media hype. Everything is OK as long as we have jobs.
Oronzo, who won't give his last name, is not so sure.
ORONZO: (Through Translator) We're all afraid of losing jobs, but we're also afraid of living in an unhealthy city. I have one son, and I'm scared at the idea of having any more.
BYLINE: Buildings in the nearby Tamburi neighborhood are covered with brown mineral dust blown from nearby slag heaps and smokestacks. People here say nearly everyone has at least one relative who's died of cancer in recent years.
Retired Ilva worker Francesco Magni has just come from the fish market with a plastic bag filled with mussels, the local staple.
FRANCESCO MAGNI: (Through Translator) I know I'm putting dioxin on our dinner table, but this is our dilemma. They've poisoned our air, our land and our sea. If I start throwing out mussels, I have to throw out milk, cheese and lettuce. The poison is everywhere.
(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOG)
BYLINE: One mile from the smokestacks, the Zitarella organic sheep farm is all but abandoned. Even the sheepdogs don't have much to do anymore. Farmer Vincenzo Fornaro was convinced he was raising healthy animals until tests taken in 2008 showed his sheep had dioxin levels 30 times above the legal limit. His herd of more than a thousand sheep was slaughtered and livestock is now banned from grazing for a radius of 12 miles. At least a thousand farm workers in the area have lost their jobs
The silence at the farm is broken by the constant hum of Ilva's blasting furnaces.
Forty-two-year-old Fornaro has had a kidney removed for a tumor, and his mother died of cancer.
FORNARO: (Through Translator) I was convinced I lived in paradise. Now I know it isn't so. For my generation, the damage has been done. Our battle is to try to ensure a better future for the next generations.
BYLINE: But high school teacher Alessandro Marescotti says it won't be easy to wean the population away from Taranto's long-dominant employer.
ALESSANDRO MARESCOTTI: (Through Translator) When I tell my students that Taranto was a flourishing city in the third century B.C., they ask, how could it survive without the Ilva steel plant? This company has fostered total dependency. The population has no sense of possible alternatives.
BYLINE: Taranto judges will challenge the government's decision to keep Ilva operational. They say openly that management is using job blackmail to avoid a shutdown. And they don't believe the company will comply with government demands for a $4 billion environmental cleanup.
In the meantime, while the steel plant keeps the economy alive, its black dust is slowly suffocating the city of Taranto.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.