MILAN (AP) -- The Italian government on Friday approved emergency measures to prevent the closure of Europe's largest steel mill, which has been engulfed in a health and environmental scandal, provided that the operators invest at least €3 billion (€3.9 billion) to modernize it.
The government acted with urgency to ensure the Ilva plant, which employs some 12,000 people and is an integral part of a larger steel supply chain, continues to operate.
The plant's owners announced plans to shut it down after magistrates impounded steel production this week as part of an investigation into alleged cover-ups in a criminal pollution probe examining an increase in cancer rates. Seven people, including executives, were arrested.
The government acted with urgency to ensure the plant, which employs some 12,000 people and is an integral part of a larger steel supply chain, continues to operate after magistrates impounded steel production this week, with the owners responding with plans to close. Seven people, including executives, also were arrested.
The government estimates a closure would drain more than €8 billion ($10 billion) annually from the economy, something Italy can ill afford in a recession. Ilva contributes 75 percent to the GDP of Taranto province, according to the company's website.
"The measures were necessary because the industrial center of Taranto is a strategic asset for Italy," Premier Mario Monti told a news conference. The goal of the government's measures, he said, was to both safeguard health and protect jobs.
Environment Minister Corrado Clini said the company would be fined 10 percent of annual revenues if it fails to comply with a cleanup schedule that a government-appointed supervisor will monitor. Ultimately, the government said the owners could lose the plant.
Clini said Ilva was the largest emitter of dioxins — a toxic pollutant — in Europe until three years ago. Since then, more stringent standards have been put in place by the region of Apulia, where Ilva is located. But, he said, it would take "a long time" to clean up dioxins deposited in the soil around the plant. The cleanup schedule is over a six-year period.
The government measures also provide for the release of blast-furnaces seized in July.
The measures take immediate effect, although Parliament approval is required within 60 days.
"We have an armored creature, from the point of view of its implementation," Monti said of the measures.
Workers have been protesting for days at the Taranto plant and other related facilities throughout Italy, fearful for their jobs. In a freak event, a tornado swept through the Taranto plant during one of the protests this week, leaving dozens injured and sweeping one worker in a crane out to sea. His body was recovered Friday.
Ilva is Europe's largest steel mill by capacity, reaching 11 million metric tons.