Following a thorough consultation with an American environmental health expert, Health Minister Yael German is opposing a plan for a controversial pilot phosphate mining project outside Arad.
“I found more than one resident who feared for his or her health and the fate of the city, while Rotem plant workers feared for their workplaces,” German wrote in a letter to Interior Ministry Planning director Binat Schwartz on Monday.
German was referring to an Israel Chemicals plan to conduct a pilot mining program at the Sde Barrir site near Arad in order to evaluate the environmental impacts of a full-scale mining operation at the site.
Encountering a range of clashing opinions on the subject of both full-scale and pilot phosphate mining at Sde Barrir, she explained in the letter that she sought out the opinion of an objective expert on the subject.
Prof. Jonathan Samet, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, was thereby tasked with examining “the issue of mining at the Sde Barrir site and its expected health influences, and advise the Health Ministry regarding his stance on mining at Sde Barrir,” she wrote.
In his 50-page report, “Human Health Considerations Related to the Siting and Operation of an Open-Pit Phosphate Mine at Sde Barrir,” Samet addressed the potential adverse effects and magnitude of harm that residents would face following the construction of a mine in their midst. Samet said he shaped his approach based on the initial charges of the Public Health Services director, Prof. Itamar Grotto, and on an examination of peer-reviewed literature, background documents and information gained during a January 2014 visit to the site.
Using an atmospheric dispersion modeling system, Samet determined that a pilot project itself would pose only minimal increase in premature mortality for Arad residents. The proposed parameters for the pilot mine would not, however, provide results that could assure that a full-scale mining operation would not harm the health of those exposed to airborne particles, he said.
“Given the parameters for the pilot mining, the experience gained could not be used to provide assurance that there would be no adverse health consequences for full mining,” Samet wrote in his opinion.
Rather than representing a true experiment, the pilot program, he explained, would only represent “a limited implementation of actual mining with a potential for identifying increases in particle concentrations that lie well beyond the bounds of modeling estimates.”
German explained that after reviewing the Samet’s opinions, as well as Grotto’s stance, she arrived at the conclusion that a pilot program would not be possible, as it would not reflect the full-scale operation.
She explained that Samet’s analysis of the expected risk levels that a full-scale mining project would present to the residents of the region convinced her that the risk does not meet the standards accepted by the US and Europe.
“We cannot agree to it,” she added.
In the future, prior to selecting sites for such purposes, a proper health-impact assessment, including a comprehensive literature review and determination of risk, should be conducted, German stressed.
MK Dov Henin (Hadash) applauded German’s decision to oppose the construction of the pilot phosphate mine.
“The ball is now in the court of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar,” Henin said. “The interior minister must prove that he prefers the life and health of the residents of the periphery, in Arad and the surrounding areas, over the profits of phosphate tycoons.”
Israel Chemicals responded, “Professor Samet determined that Sde Barrir does not actually have a real effect on the health of the area’s residents.” The company added that a decision not to allow the mining would undermine the development of the Negev region.