BARI, Italy Italian prosecutors have ordered steel maker ILVA to comply within five days with an order to begin shutting down operations because of heavy pollution at its site in the southern city of Taranto, according to documents seen by Reuters.
No immediate comment was available from the company, part of the privately owned Riva steel group.
In July, magistrates appointed special administrators at the plant and ordered it to be shut down following a series of damning environmental reports which blamed toxic emissions from the site for abnormal levels of tumours and respiratory diseases in the Taranto region.
The order was confirmed in a preliminary ruling by judges but has yet to be implemented fully, although the plant has been running at reduced capacity and shutdown operations in parts of the site, including blast furnace number 1, have begun.
The ILVA case has provided a major headache for the government of Prime Minister Mario Monti, which has to balance demands for a cleanup with the need to protect jobs in a region already suffering above average unemployment.
The huge, continuously operating blast furnaces cannot be switched off without a long term shutdown of the site with the risk that it would be closed down permanently.
ILVA, Europe's largest steel plant, employs some 12,000 workers directly and another 8,000 ancillary workers depend on the sprawling site in Taranto, on the heel of Italy. It accounts for more than a third of steel output in Italy, the second-biggest producer in Europe after Germany.
However environmental reports cited by magistrates and in a preliminary court ruling issued in August say emissions of dust and cancer-causing chemicals have created an "environmental disaster" that has caused hundreds of deaths.
The order from Taranto prosecutors, sent to ILVA on Saturday, followed a meeting last week with the special administrators, who said that plant management had not been cooperating with the original order to shut down its furnaces.
The prosecutors ordered the shutdown of number 1 and number 5 blast furnaces and the sale of the number 3 furnace, which was already shut down due to weak demand. In addition, 7 coke oven batteries have also been ordered to close.
Separately, Environment minister Corrado Clini told Rai television that a report by experts from his department outlining cleanup action the company would have to take to gain authorization to continue operations would be ready this week.
(Reporting by Vincenzo Damiano, writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Ron Askew)