Workers disillusioned as ArcelorMittal mulls dropping Taranto deal

Workers at the Taranto steelmill faced an uncertain future on Friday as global giant ArcelorMittal decides if it will walk away from Europe's biggest integrated plant.

Workers disillusioned as ArcelorMittal mulls dropping Taranto deal
ArcelorMittal last week said it may pull out of a deal to buy the Taranto steel mill. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
The world's largest steelmaker generated shockwaves Monday by announcing it would ditch its plan to buy Ilva, which owns the Taranto plant in southern Italy.
It is Europe's largest integrated steelmaking site, and employs more than 8,000 workers.
The Italian government, which provisionally nationalised Ilva in 2015, has vowed to be “inflexible” in holding ArcelorMittal to its deal.
ArcelorMittal, which began leasing the plant in November with an obligation to buy it, first blamed its retreat on a decision by Rome to refuse it immunity from prosecution over the plant's severe pollution.
The Luxembourg-based steel giant planned to invest 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in Taranto to curb pollution by 2024, and was given a period of legal immunity to bring the site up to environmental standards.
But Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who faced a crowd of shouting workers at the site on Friday, said the decision was instead driven by profits, with ArcelorMittal demanding that 5,000 jobs be cut.
While Rome and ArcelorMittal wrangled, Taranto workers expressed worry and fatigue over the latest challenges, which follow years of controversy.
Experts say 7,500 people have died in the surrounding area – where the plant's tall chimneys can be seen for miles – from diseases linked to toxic emissions.
“People are worried, mad, but overall they're tired, resigned because the problems at Ilva are endless and have gone on for decades,” said one worker, who asked to be identified only as Pasquale.
In the midst of a one-day strike, Fabio Cocco told AFP that he and his colleagues at the plant were disillusioned with a mill that was once the pride of the region, employing generations of workers.
“We don't believe in it anymore today. We've suffered too long with the pollution, the sickness, and now Mittal which is leaving us,” he said. Cocco called the risk of mass layoffs “the latest blackmail that we've endured and I've had enough.”
Speaking to journalists during his visit, Conte said he was struck by what he had heard and seen while in Taranto, including workers who wondered whether they were “doing something wrong,” in continuing to work at the mill, given the environmental damage incurred.
“This is a wounded community,” Conte told journalists, caught “between the right to work and the right to health.”
“This is a community that has suffered so much and continues to suffer,” Conte said, cautioning that a solution to the problem would take more than just one person, community, or government.
“Toxic dust”
ArcelorMittal had originally said it planned to invest a total 2.4 billion euros in the plant to revive it, including 1.2 billion to curb pollution. The plant is currently losing almost 2.0 million euros a day, unions say.
“We could see with the naked eye toxic dust floating in the air in the neighbourhood but we never imagined the problem was also invisible, with substances like carcinogens,” said retired worker Cosimo Martinese, 70.
Underscoring persistent economic problems plaguing the area, youth employment in the area around Taranto is 56.2 percent of the workforce, according to the national statistics agency.
In the town itself, overall unemployment is 30 percent, and scores of ex-workers from the struggling plant rely on social services.
Former worker Emmanuele Palmisaro, 45, calculated that around 1,660 people had been laid off by Ilva before the arrival of ArcelorMittal, which cut another 1,400 jobs owing to the sluggish market for steel during its short tenure.
“That makes nearly 3,000 people living off of welfare,” Palmisaro noted.
In 1995, when Ilva was sold to the family-run company Gruppo Riva, suspicions began to surface of links between the plant and abnormal rates of cancers, often infantile, among local residents.
After being placed under state-supervised administration in 2015, Italy held an international bid for the group that was won by ArcelorMittal.   
Journalist Fulvio Colucci, author of the book “Invisible: To live and die at Ilva in Taranto,” explains that the plant's core problems are classic supply and demand, with production levels that exceed current demand for steel.
“That's why Mittal wants to reduce its workforce by half” and trim production to make it more competitive, he said.

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Greenpeace sounds alarm over Spain’s ‘poisonous mega farms’

The “uncontrolled” growth of industrial farming of livestock and poultry in Spain is causing water pollution from nitrates to soar, Greenpeace warned in a new report on Thursday.

Greenpeace sounds alarm over Spain's 'poisonous mega farms'
Pollution from hundreds of intensive pig farms played a major role in the collapse of Murcia Mar Menor saltwater lagoon. Photo: JOSEP LAGO / AFP

The number of farm animals raised in Spain has jumped by more than a third since 2015 to around 560 million in 2020, it said in the report entitled “Mega farms, poison for rural Spain”.

This “excessive and uncontrolled expansion of industrial animal farming” has had a “serious impact on water pollution from nitrates”, it said.

Three-quarters of Spain’s water tables have seen pollution from nitrates increase between 2016 and 2019, the report said citing Spanish government figures.

Nearly 29 percent of the country’s water tables had more than the amount of nitrate considered safe for drinking, according to a survey carried out by Greenpeace across Spain between April and September.

The environmental group said the government was not doing enough.

It pointed out that the amount of land deemed an “area vulnerable to nitrates” has risen to 12 million hectares in 2021, or 24 percent of Spain’s land mass, from around eight million hectares a decade ago, yet industrial farming has continued to grow.

“It is paradoxical to declare more and more areas vulnerable to nitrates”, but at the same time allow a “disproportionate rise” in the number of livestock on farms, Greenpeace said.

Pollution from hundreds of intensive pig farms played a major role in the collapse of one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons, the Mar Menor in Spain’s southeast, according to a media investigation published earlier this week.

Scientists blamed decades of nitrate-laden runoffs for triggering vast blooms of algae that had depleted the water of the lagoon of oxygen, leaving fish suffocating underwater.

Two environmental groups submitted a formal complaint in early October to the European Union over Spain’s failure to protect the lagoon.