PIOMBINO, Italy — Workers are hurriedly revamping the aged port in this smoggy Tuscan city, trucking in boulders to construct and fortify jetties, and enlarging its facilities to refit and dismantle ships. They are scheduled to dredge and deepen the harbor next month.
The work, part of a $154 million restoration that Piombino hopes will stop the port’s decline, has grown and taken on new urgency as the city competes to lure a special guest: the 950-foot-long wreck of the Costa Concordia, the cruise liner that hit a rock and capsized about 40 miles south of here two years ago.
The hulk is to be broken up for scrap, and the question of who will do the job and where it will be done is the latest chapter of a story that has moved from national shame — 32 people died in the wreck, while the captain fled in a lifeboat — to engineering triumph, after a spectacular parbuckling operation turned the 114,500-ton ship back upright in September.
A reminder of the highly experimental nature of the salvage work came early this month when one of the steel chambers fastened to the ship to help refloat it shifted unexpectedly. The incident increased pressure on officials to decide soon where to tow the ship for demolition, completing its transformation from coastal eyesore to economic boon.
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The ship’s operator, Costa Cruises, and its insurers — together with the Italian authorities, who must authorize the transfer — are expected to award the contract in the next few weeks, after months of jockeying, and the ship should be ready to move sometime from July to September.
Piombino is the closest port to the island of Giglio, where the ship ran aground, but it is just one of more than 10 ports and business consortia from six countries that are competing for the work, which will create scores of jobs.
Turkey is offering the lowest price. China is the farthest away. Among the five Italian ports in the hunt, Genoa has the advantage of being home to Costa Cruises’ headquarters. But Piombino is particularly eager to get the assignment, both for the prestige and for the influx of cash.
“What is key at this point is the political will,” said Gianni Anselmi, the mayor of Piombino. “We are simply trying to grab an opportunity for growth and jobs, both things in high demand over here.”
The port, built in the 19th century, and the surrounding city are battling tough economic times, with their fortunes tied to the Lucchini steel plant. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the plant has endured a whirlwind of setbacks and financial losses, and its administration was taken over by a special commissioner in December 2012.
It finally ran out of money in April, and blast-furnace operations ceased, threatening the jobs of 2,327 workers at the plant itself and related employment for about 5,000 more people, devastating numbers in a city whose population is less than 35,000.
“The Concordia here offers an immediate response to an urgent crisis,” said Mirko Lami, a union leader at the Lucchini plant.
The prospect of 100-200 new shipyard jobs has prompted demands that the hulk remain in Tuscany, the region most affected by the shipwreck. And Piombino wants the job to kick-start its port restoration project.
Experts warn that political considerations should take a back seat to questions of expertise and environmental risks.
“This is not a political or social decision, it’s purely technical, and a very delicate one,” said Gianpaolo Rosati, the director of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the Polytechnic University of Milan. “Just because a port has adequate equipment and a suitable dry dock, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s compatible with the dismantling operation. Building ships is a clean process. Dismantling them is not.”
Rosati noted that Piombino’s proximity to the wreck site is an advantage, minimizing the costs and hazards involved in moving the hulk. But the port’s dimensions must be compatible with the Concordia, which is 950 feet long and 115 feet wide, with a draft of 60 feet. Moreover, the port needs to have the means to haul away the dangerous substances on board, either by land to dumping sites relatively close by, or on ships equipped to handle the waste.
Piombino has urgently sought to meet those requirements with its refurbishing. But the Port of Genoa, home of the leading Italian shipbuilding firm, Fincantieri, is larger than the Piombino port and already has the facilities to repair large ships, with 1,245-foot-long docks and a 55-foot sea bottom that can be easily deepened to 95 feet, the necessary depth, officials said.
“We have the technical skills and the infrastructure to carry out the works,” said Luigi Merlo, the president of the Genoa Port Authority. “Naval entrepreneurs based here build, demolish, enlarge and modify ships every day.”
Even so, some observers say that no Italian port now has the facilities and the experience to dismantle such a large ship, at least not at the level of the Turkish ports.
“The real risk to me is that the Concordia will go abroad,” Merlo said.