ROME -- Thousands of workers stormed the locked gates of Europe's largest steel plant on Tuesday after the company halted production and said that a court ruling warning of serious environmental problems would force it to shut down.
The developments at the Ilva plant, in the southern city of Taranto, came after a court on Monday ordered the plant's steel seized, claiming that pollutants resulting from production have driven up cancer rates in the area.
The crisis raised questions about whether the year-old government of Prime Minister Mario Monti was able to protect the environment while creating industrial growth in a worsening economic climate, especially in Italy's less-developed south. At least 20,000 jobs are at stake.
The government, which faces national elections early next year, called for an emergency meeting with the plant's management, local authorities and labor unions in Rome on Thursday, and said it would discuss the issue at a cabinet meeting on Friday.
"We're working to address and resolve this situation," Environment Minister Corrado Clini said in televised remarks on Tuesday. He said the government was working to find ways for the company to invest in improving its infrastructure without stopping production, "and to clean up the environment and protect workers' health."
In a statement, Ilva said the seizure violated the government's authorization to allow it to continue production while it tries to address the health and environmental concerns. It said stopping production would cause the "immediate and unavoidable" closing of its plant in Taranto, in the heel of Italy's boot, and its other facilities.
Metalworker unions called a strike to coincide with the meeting in Rome.
"Some have worked here for 30 years who would never have imagined such a dramatic evolution of the situation," Rocco Palombella, the secretary of Uilm, the metalworkers union, said in a statement. "There is anarchy in Taranto."
More than 1,000 workers demonstrated at an Ilva processing plant outside Genoa, in northern Italy, on Tuesday, and said they would be forced to stop work in four days without steel supplied from Taranto.
In 2011, Ilva produced 8.5 million tons of steel, or 30 percent of Italy's steel output, and experts warned that the plant closure would have a ripple effect throughout Italian industry.
"If it closed, it would have roughly the same impact on employment and the Italian economy as if Fiat closed," said Gianni Dragoni, a reporter with Il Sole 24 Ore, a financial newspaper, and the author of a book on Ilva.
The crisis first erupted in July, when magistrates ordered the closure of blast furnaces at the Taranto plant. That process has not been completed.
Analysts noted that Ilva's parent company, Riva Group, had lost some of the political support it had during the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, when Riva was one of the largest investors in a deal to buy Italy's ailing flagship airline, Alitalia. Today, "It's a showdown between the company and the magistrates," Mr. Dragoni said. Rather than investing to make the plant's infrastructure more environmentally friendly, "The message seems to be, 'Either I'm going to pollute, or I'm going to close.' "
Last month, courts ruled that Ilva could continue cold-rolling production if it cut down emissions and cleaned the plant. Judges have said the emissions are a factor in the area's cancer rates and other health woes. Some studies have shown that rates of certain cancers are significantly higher around Taranto than in surrounding areas. Ilva denies any connection between its plant and the region's cancer rates.
On Monday, magistrates ordered the arrest of seven people, including the founder and president of Riva, on charges of bribing officials to cover up the environmental hazards at the plant. On Tuesday, five more people were placed under investigation.
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.