“Taranto has been destroyed by the pollution. The earth has gone…the nature, the river, the sea.”

The port city of Taranto sits on the southern heel of Italy. In a region known for picturesque baroque towns, stone cottages and olive groves, Taranto is the exception. It is a forgotten place, with crumbling buildings and a skyline dominated by smoking chimneys.

The Ilva steelworks, one of the biggest in Europe, employs more than 12,000 people in Taranto and indirectly a further 8,000, breathing life into a depressed local economy.

But the factory has long been accused of killing local residents and causing environmental devastation, belching out a mix of toxic minerals, metals and carcinogenic dioxins to the air day and night.

A study in 2005 found that 8.8% of all the dioxins in Europe came from the Ilva steel plant. More recent figures have put lung cancer mortalities in the area at 30% above the national average and the overall cancer death rate 15% higher.

Many across the town complain of ongoing health problems that they say are directly linked to the factory emissions. Meanwhile local doctors continue to fight for independent analyses to be carried out, arguing that the studies conducted so far do not represent the true scale of the problem.

In the Tamburi quarter, a poor neighbourhood that sits right under the shadow of the factory, residents are forbidden by law to touch the soil. Their purpose-built apartment blocks are permanently coated in red mineral dust and fine, black soot.

In a 20 kilometre exclusion zone surrounding the factory, farmers have been banned from working the land, 3000 contaminated livestock have been slaughtered and now even Taranto’s famous ‘two seas’ are choking under the pollution. Taranto was once famous for its mussels, but in July 2011 the exclusion zone around the steel plant was extended, making it illegal for fisherman to sell mussels taken from within the area.

In July 2012 the saga surrounding one of Europe’s biggest steelworks took a dramatic turn; managers of the plant were placed under house arrest and local courts deemed the factory to be causing an environmental and public health catastrophe so severe that it should be forced to close immediately while a clean-up operation took place.

But the Italian government stepped in, arguing that in that time Chinese production would reap the benefits. After a series of contradictory court rulings the steelworks are still operating, while a solution to ‘clean-up’ or ‘shutdown’ tries to be found.

As ongoing battles persist between politicians, local courts, industrial managers and trade unions, large numbers of local residents have taken to the streets for the first time, protesting at what they argue is corruption and greed that has allowed the factory to operate in an irresponsible way for too long.

Slowly, they say, a veil of self-denial is lifting, and they no longer want to be forgotten.