Sick of Steel

We were shown the graveyard full of Ilva employees – the tombstones are cut from amber-coloured stone so that it’s less noticeable when they turn red from the pollution. We spent two weeks in the poor neighbourhood of Tamburi, which sits in the shadow of the Ilva steel plant, one of Europe’s largest, to see what it is to live somewhere that makes you sick. But for those who have lost too much because of the steel factory, apathy is impossible. It’s poison. Alessandro died five years ago but Aurelio still spends every single day by his tomb. Many of the people of Tamburi simply do not care what the steel factory is doing to them. A worker named Cataldo shows us photos of pipes leaking dangerous waste inside the plant. On our first day we’re greeted by Sylvia Cristofaro, a 21-year-old anti-Ilva activist, who took us on a tour of the streets she grew up in. Cataldo has begun campaigning for workers to be given proper protective clothing, hoping this might help keep   them safe from harmful substances. No compensation was received and the farmers were left with nothing. Vincenzo used to have a sheep farm but in 2008 dioxins were found in all the animals in the area. Aurelio chose not to bury Alessandro in the local graveyard, as he ‘wanted him to be far away from what killed him’. Tamburi is isolated (they speak a dialect that most native Italians cannot understand), ignored and incredibly impoverished – the factory has a hold over this neighbourhood that would be impossible anywhere else.  
Photographs © Gus Palmer And it’s what we breathe.’ This dust contains dioxins that cause cancer. Alessandro had cystic fibrosis, the air in Taranto quickly worsened his condition and he died while waiting for a lung transplant. He heard about how after the Chernobyl disaster, locals planted cannabis to remove dioxins from the soil. Sick of Steel
Gus Palmer & Emilie Harley

Taranto is a town located in the heel of the Italian boot, but despite being in the tourist-loved, turquoise-watered region of Puglia, there is a distinct absence of sun-creamed holidaymakers. He decided that he wanted to try it in Taranto. In life and in death, Ilva is always there. ‘It’s mineral dust that has blown in from the factory. Soon the hemp will remove the pollution from his land, and in the meantime he is considering whether or not he should run for mayor. At this point in Vincenzo’s life, his mother had already died of cancer and he had to have his own kidney removed due to cancer. In this deeply religious community, Ilva donated money to build the church. She pointed out the reddish glow coming from the pavements and the cars. Ilva will pay for the burial, which the majority see as an act of generosity on the factory’s part. 2,517 animals were killed, and Vincenzo himself lost 605 sheep – his whole livelihood. Most gave up, but Vincenzo looked for solutions. We met Vincenzo Fornaro, who is fighting the factory his own way. Everyone we speak to in Tamburi has lost somebody to cancer, yet there is a palpable lack of anger towards the plant, and very few are willing to speak out. Although it’s difficult to comprehend, Sylvia attempted to explain it to us: ‘Ilva has polluted the minds of the people, and now they believe their lives don’t matter’. As a worker actively pushing for change, Cataldo is something of an anomaly. But ultimately, he and the other workers are all too aware that one day the steel plant might kill them. From morning to night he sits and speaks to his son, he is so consumed by grief and anger towards Ilva that he has entirely cut himself off from the rest of the world. The factory is, after all, the economic lifeblood of Tamburi; no one wants to see it close. Rates of lung cancer are 30 per cent higher. On our last day, we spent time with Aurelio Rebuzzi, whose son Alessandro died aged sixteen. What tends to put them off is the sight of the giant steel factory on the horizon, and the stories of polluted seafood and carcinogenic dust in the air. This dependency is described by another factory employee, Francesco, who – after telling us that out of the 100 people he works with, 10 have throat cancer – explains that, ‘if one of your sons dies of cancer, Ilva will call and offer your other son a job.’
But there is also an apathy that runs more deeply than the fear of unemployment. Every morning there is a new toxic coating, as if a copper snow has fallen, and residents can be seen sweeping it off their balconies. When a plant employee dies, families often do not have enough money to cover the costs of a funeral, and they turn to Ilva. Tamburi has been home to her family for four generations. He explains that the factory is in financial meltdown and cannot afford any repairs. Above the altar, in a painting of Jesus on the cross, the steel factory can be seen in the background. As we speak to factory employees sitting outside on plastic chairs, enjoying an after-work beer, the risks become clear. The message is clear: Ilva is God. Now, standing proudly in his hemp field, Vincenzo explained that doing this was all about showing Ilva that he wasn’t just going to take it. That the steel plant is making people sick is impossible to deny, despite the factory owner’s protestations that the emissions are safe. Any milk or meat from the livestock would have been unfit for human consumption and the animals had to be slaughtered. A local doctor gave us the disquieting figures, telling us how the child cancer rate in Taranto is 54 per cent higher than in the rest of the region.