(photo credit: Channel 10)
Instead of rockets from Gaza, the people of Ashdod had to deal with a massive fire at the city's Agan Chemicals plant on Wednesday night.
Four people were injured and nearby residents were briefly forced to barricade themselves behind closed and sealed windows before the flames were put out by firefighters.
However, no hazardous materials were released into the air, Environmental Protection Ministry deputy director-general Yossi Inbar told The Jerusalem Post. Agan manufactures pesticides and has a license from the ministry to manufacture, store and distribute toxic materials.
The fire lasted about an hour and a half, and there was no indication it had been caused by a rocket from Gaza. Four people were taken to the hospital suffering from smoke inhalation.
"At about 6 p.m., a fire broke out in one of the factory's warehouses that housed raw materials," Inbar told the Post. "Our Hazmat people who were on call arrived at the scene, and then the firefighters."
"We ordered residents in the surrounding neighborhoods to close their windows and seal them. We then measured for toxic materials in the air, and when we didn't find any, we allowed people back out, about an hour later," he said. "Several dozen tons of raw materials burned."
The company has no history of safety violations, Inbar said.
"This factory was under close oversight by the ministry, since it was situated so close to population centers. While these kinds of things happen from time to time, this factory had no history of violations," he said.
"Moreover, because of the war we asked that each of the raw materials be stored separately, and this is why the fire didn't spread beyond the one warehouse to other parts of the factory," Inbar said.
Eyewitnesses said they first saw a small fire, which quickly turned into a roaring inferno.
A spokesman for the company said in a statement that two workers had suffered smoke inhalation. The spokesman added that an investigation into the cause of the blaze would be opened to determine when the factory could resume operations, according to Army Radio.
Environmental groups slammed the ministry and Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra for failing to move factories that have toxic materials away from population centers.
The Green Movement-Meimad Party expressed deep distress. Last week, MK Michael Melchior, No. 1 on its candidates list, asked for an urgent Knesset committee hearing to discuss removing hazardous materials from within range of Hamas's rockets.
Eran Ben-Yemini, No. 2 on the party's list, launched a blistering attack on Ezra.
"This is the result of the soft-hand policy and the obsequiousness of Gideon Ezra toward the big polluters. Thousands of residents had to barricade themselves in their homes because of criminal negligence, and the finger of blame can only point toward the government. High concentrations of hazardous materials should not have been stored near civilians in the first place. Someone must pay for this disaster," Ben-Yemini said in a statement.
Israel Union for Environmental Defense head Tzipi Iser Itzik also demanded regulatory changes in the wake of the fire.
"This incident joins a long line of accidents in chemical factories. Hazardous materials near population centers can be potentially harmful to the public's life and health.
"It is time for the Environmental Protection Ministry to create a modern regulatory framework in Israel, like that which is standard in developed countries for correctly managing the use of chemicals and toxic materials," she declared.
Green Course, the national student environmental organization, noted that they and other green groups had sent a letter last week to the ministry and the IDF Home Front Command demanding the relocation of toxic materials in the South in light of the rocket attacks.
"These materials represent a ticking time bomb under the residents' homes, not just in times of war, but also in times of peace. The Environmental Protection Ministry must do its job and deal with hazardous materials, not just in Ashdod but also in Haifa and in the Ramat Hovav area [in the Negev]. People's lives are in the hands of the decision-makers and we will not allow them to be abandoned," the organization said.
Green Course also said it had not yet received a response from any government agency regarding their letter.