Italian prime minister faces protester wrath at contested steel plant

5-Star Movement leader Luigi di Maio speaks to the media after consultations with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome
5-Star Movement leader Luigi di Maio speaks to the media after consultations with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in Rome, Italy, August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Ciro de Luca

November 8, 2019

By Ciro de Luca

TARANTO, Italy (Reuters) – Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was met by angry locals when he visited Europe’s largest steel plant on Friday after ArcelorMittal announced it would walk away from a deal to buy the heavily polluting site, leaving its future in the balance.

While Conte has vowed to save the Ilva steelworks and its 8,200 jobs, hundreds of locals demanded the closure of the plant because of the toxic waste it has spewed over the adjacent southern city of Taranto.

“It is incompatible with human life,” one man shouted as protesters surrounded Conte.

“Shut it, shut it,” the crowd chanted.

ArcelorMittal said this week it was withdrawing from a 2018 deal to buy Ilva, blaming its decision on a government move to scrap previous guarantees of legal immunity during a massive clean-up operation at the Taranto plant.

Conte accused the steel giant of acting in ill faith and said the real reason it wanted to quit Italy was because it no longer thought its industrial plan was viable and was seeking 5,000 job cuts at Ilva to meet its financial goals.

Unions at Taranto staged a one-day strike on Friday to protest over the crisis.

They have accused the government of providing ArcelorMittal with an excuse to abandon Ilva by binning the legal shield which was given to the previous, state-controlled administrators.

Conte this week promised to revive the immunity if this would persuade ArcelorMittal to remain, but his coalition is divided, raising speculation that it might even fall apart over the question.

The ruling 5-Star Movement had demanded the closure of the Taranto plant ahead of last year’s national election. It was eventually forced to accept the ArcelorMittal deal but many of its lawmakers have denounced the legal shield, saying it deprived pollution-hit residents of rightful legal redress.

Experts say environmental norms were ignored at the site for decades, leaving Taranto exposed to toxic pollutants. One report drawn up by a group of medics said that between 2005 and 2012 more than 3,000 deaths were directly linked to the pollution. Locals say there have been hundreds more deaths since then.

The head of 5-Star, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, disavowed Conte’s promise to reinstate the shield if necessary, and warned his coalition allies not to try to force the issue.

“It would be a serious problem for the government if anyone in the coalition presents an amendment (to restore immunity) without a deal (with us) beforehand,” Di Maio said on Friday.

The coalition Italia Viva party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi has already presented such an amendment to parliament and it was not clear if it was ready to defy 5-Star and seek backing for its proposal from opposition parties.

The far-right League, which voted with 5-Star to remove the legal immunity when the two parties were in government together until August, now accuses the coalition of incompetence and says it should resign.

(Additional reporting by Giuseppe Fonte; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Gavin Jones)