By Svetlana Kovalyova
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's main steel plant faces a possible partial shutdown if a magistrate rules its fumes and dust particles endanger the health of thousands of workers and nearby residents.
The imminent decision follows a lengthy probe into whether dioxin and other chemicals pumped from the ILVA plant have caused an abnormal increase in cancer cases and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases in the southern port of Taranto.
Riva Group, which includes ILVA, could not immediately be reached for comment but has said it respects all environmental regulations and that emissions from the plant are well within legal limits, according to its websites. (www.rivagroup.com) (www.ilvataranto.com)
ILVA, a major employer in the impoverished Puglia region, is one of Europe's biggest steel plants and produced 8.5 million tonnes in 2011, nearly 30 percent of total Italian output.
The prospect of a ruling has prompted Prime Minister Mario Monti's government to summon local politicians and officials to a meeting on Thursday to find ways of resolving pollution issues while keeping jobs as Italy slips ever further into an economic recession.
"We hope a solution will be found to make the plant more environment-friendly," said Lunetta Franco, the head of Taranto's branch of Italian environmentalist group Legambiente.
"We understand the industrial needs but the issues of health cannot be ignored," said Franco, who has campaigned to reduce pollution at ILVA, owned by the wealthy Riva family.
About 4,000-5,000 people work at the most polluting section of the plant, which risks being shut. This includes a coke making plant, a blast furnace and an agglomeration unit, union members and company sources told Reuters.
The whole site employs between 15,000 and 20,000 people and represent a major source of income for the Taranto area.
It is one of the few large industrial plants in southern Italy, which is much less industrialized than the country's wealthy North.
Unemployment in Puglia was 15.6 percent in the first quarter of 2012, above the national average and twice as much as in the northern regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. ILVA workers marched against the plant's possible closure earlier this year.
A study requested by local magistrates linked 386 deaths among the local population to ILVA's fumes in 13 years. The majority were living in two low-income neighborhood very close to the plant.
The study also showed a higher-than-average number of tumors among ILVA workers.
"Analyses have revealed a grave situation," Franco added. "They have shown a link between the deaths and plant pollution."
The investigation, which started a couple of years ago, is expected to close by the end of July.
In a sign that things are heating up for ILVA, the region of Puglia rushed through a new law on Tuesday, immediately nicknamed Salva-ILVA (Save ILVA), on tightening controls in areas of high environmental risk, including Taranto.
Puglia's governor Nichi Vendola, the leader of Italy's leftist-green party Sinistra Ecologia Liberta (Left, Ecology, Freedom), said he is dreaded a stoppage at ILVA.
"Not even for a minute could I imagine the shutdown of a plant which gives a living to almost 20,000 people," he was quoted as saying in daily Corriere della Sera on Monday.
If the new environment protection law is respected, there would be no need to close the steel plant, trade unions say.
"We don't want to face a choice between job and health," Marco Bentivogli, National Secretary of the metalworkers union FIM-CISL, told Reuters.
"We believe that ILVA should continue to invest in reducing pollution, in cutting dioxin. There is a lot of work to be done. But the plant should remain operating," he said.
(Additional reporting by Massimiliano di Giorgio in Rome; Editing by David Cowell)