The local economy of Taranto, population 200,000, is almost entirely reliant on the steel mill, which is one of the biggest and most deadly polluters of anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The plant is a notorious source of dioxin and dust from the plant is believed to be the reason why Taranto has a lung cancer rate 30% higher than the national average. The plant is so toxic, farmers are forbidden from raising livestock within a 20 kilometer radius of the plant and in 2008, the government ordered the slaughter of thousands of sheep and other animals that were found to have excessively high levels of dioxin.

The area could also be making a lot of money off of tourists because of its nice beaches and pastoral farmland, but the steel mill keeps potential visitors away.

The mill is currently under government control. Health officials ordered the mill be partially shut down, yet the move was blocked by government authorities, and the police partially occupied the plant as part of a criminal investigation, and its owners were ultimately arrested and jailed for committing “environmental disaster”, a serious crime in Italy. Yet the mill still continues to operate, producing much less steel than it once had.

Vincenzo Fornaro’s farm is less than a mile away from the steel mill. Over a decade ago, his entire flock of 600 sheep had to be killed. Since then, he’s been forbidden from raising livestock or crops for food. So instead, Vincenzo Fornaro has decided to grow weed. He doesn’t grow pot to smoke or sell, instead he grows it to pull toxins from the steel mill out of his soil.

Fornaro has planted huge stands of industrial hemp on his farm. He is using a tactic called “phytoremediation”. This tactic uses plants to remove heavy metals, radioactive material, and other bad stuff from the earth.

Industrial hemp has been used to clean up deadly pollutants before. The most famous use of industrial hemp for phytoremediation was near the site of the deadly nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, Ukraine. In the mid-1990s, a company named Phytotech worked with researchers and a Ukraine-based seed bank to plant thousands of hemp plants in and around Chernobyl.

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