Ordered to stop production by a judge because of high levels of pollution, ILVA is responsible for almost a third of Italy’s steel output.
One of Europe’s biggest steel makers, closing it would damage the south badly.
The underdeveloped region around Taranto, in the “heel” of Italy, has high unemployment and a lot of organised crime.
Apart from employing 12,000 people, the work at ILVA supports thousands of other jobs indirectly.
Many desperately want the site kept open.
The government intends to appeal against the partial closure decision. But in the meantime a demonstrator said: “We just want to work, to bring home our pay, since we have many debts we want to keep up with. We’re pleading: please let us work.”
That is in spite of health ministry figures which indicate that deaths from cancer in the region are 15 percent above the national average and lung cancer death rates 30 percent higher.
The head of the NGO Peacelink suggests an impatience with people who urge keeping ILVA polluting.
Alessandro Marescotti said: “There’s a slogan: ‘In Taranto no one starves’, which is exaggerated. Many people die because of cancer. No one starves. Environmental experts have told us that if we equate the presence of the chemical benzopyrene to cigarettes it’s as if every child in the city inhales something like a thousand cigarettes per year.”
The Tamburi neighbourhood just next to the site in question is particularly exposed.
Brushing her hand over a flatscreen TV, her fingers coming up black, a resident choked back tears saying: “Have a look here. I wiped this piece of furniture yesterday. Our children breathe this dust. It gets in the lungs!”
One of Europe’s most polluted cities, Taranto in 2010 held the sinister distinction of producing 92 percent of all Italy’s dioxin emissions. An 800-page report shown to judges in March concluded that exposure was the cause of illnesses and deaths.
Epidemiologist Francesco Forastiere said: “The results of the study clearly show an effect of industrial pollution on cardiovascular events, especially myocardial infarctions, respiratory conditions and also cancer, overall cancer and also paediatric cancer.”
By the end of September the government expects to decree steps the plant must take to reduce pollution.
A separate investigation into environmental damage is under way.
Eight executives have been placed under house arrest in the case.