Italy's environment minister warned Sunday in an interview against suspending operations at a giant steel plant, even though it might be a dangerous polluter.
"When we talk about suspending production, we must take responsibility" for possibly boosting rival steel makers in Europe and China, Environment Minister Corrado Clini told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
"Italy will lose out whereas I see plenty of European competitors waiting in the wings, not to mention the Chinese, who would profit enormously," Clini said.
Operators of the ILVA plant in the poor southern city of Taranto were ordered last week to clean up pollution that some blame for high local cancer rates, a ruling that might mean suspending output and losing business.
"I'm not just talking about the 20,000 employees that depend on ILVA but other sites in Italy that use ILVA's production," the environment minister said. "Who will provide the Italian economy with steel?"
ILVA's chairman Bruno Ferrante told the same paper that "saying no to production means stopping the heart of the company, it's reason for being."
One of Europe's biggest steel plants, the site has witnessed a fierce stand-off between those who want it closed and thousands of families that depend on it for jobs amid a worsening economic crisis.
On Friday Judge Patrizia Todisco notified the steel plant's managers that she could not "foresee using the site... for production purposes" while chemicals spewed by the factory were cleaned up.
ILVA is appealing the decision.
The clean-up order itself had not specified whether the factory would have to close while the work was carried out. The government has promised a 336-million-euro (US$414-million) clean-up to help solve the problem.
Clini told the Corriere: "I don't want to argue with the judge (Todisco) but I'm concerned that the clean-up operation will be interrupted and we end up right back at the beginning with the same old arguments."
An Italian study last year found that Taranto suffered from a "mortality excess" of between 10% and 15%, due to the release of dioxin and other chemicals causing cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
On August 2, unions led thousands of workers in Taranto in protests over the closure of the plant. One man who wanted the plant to remain open said he would rather "die of cancer than starve."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2012