Aiming to dramatically curb air pollution levels and improve the region’s quality of life, the cabinet unanimously approved the Environmental Protection Ministry’s National Action Plan for the Haifa Bay Area on Sunday.
“The new year will begin with good news for hundreds of thousands of residents of the Haifa Bay area, who are at the center of our activity,” said Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay.
The cabinet approved a five-year, NIS 115.5 million budget for the program on Sunday, nearly doubling the already existing funds for various elements of the program that did not require government authorization. In addition to setting specific targets for emissions reductions at industrial facilities, the action plans call for the establishment of the country’s first official Low Emission Zone (LEZ), in which heavy vehicular traffic is limited in a particular portion of the city according to European standards. A critical component of the program also involves halving factory emissions by 2018.
“The program is the first step toward significantly changing the quality of life in the region, and will continue to work together with the Transportation, Health and Finance ministries, and with the authorities, for the right to breathe clean air throughout the country,” Gabbay said.
By designating an LEZ in Haifa, the municipality will join hundreds of European cities that already limit the operation of diesel trucks and buses in specifically determined areas, Environmental Protection Ministry officials explained in August, at an initial press meeting about the forthcoming plan. Haifa’s LEZ is likely to be located in the Ha’atzmaut Road area of the city.
In order to accomplish the goal of halving factory emissions by 2018, the National Action Plan will be providing new emissions targets for 26 factories, as well as for the area’s oil refineries. Meanwhile, factories still running on heavy fuel oil will be required to convert their operations to natural gas power.
Fuel stations in the Haifa Bay region, which account for eight percent of the area’s emissions, will be required to install and operate for the rest of the year gasoline vapor recovery systems to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds, according to the plan.
The National Action Plan will also enable the subsidization of pollution reduction devices for heavy vehicles, as well as the conversion of municipal garbage trucks to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). The project calls for 30 buses to be running on CNG by the end of 2016. Another improvement to the transportation sector will involve the redirection of truck traffic to the Carmel Tunnels, by lowering toll fees, as well as the addition of about 500 electric-powered taxis to the city’s roads.
Some other elements of the plan include stricter regulations at Haifa’s port for docked ships, as well as funds specifically allocated for increased monitoring of air pollution levels and other studies.
The NIS 115.5m. budget approved for the National Action Plan on Sunday brings the total funds for the program up to some NIS 330m., with the already existing funding heading primarily toward the evacuation of the Haifa Bay ammonia plant to an uninhabited region of the South, as well as other environmental projects authorized in the past year, the ministry said.
The cabinet approval on Sunday comes five months after a flurry of media reports linking the incidence of cancer to air pollution in the Haifa Bay area sent the region’s residents into panic. The reports – based on a Health Ministry letter – initially prompted drastic moves such as a mayoral decision to blockade the city’s biggest factories.
However, the ministry eventually retracted its statements.
Nonetheless, the Environmental Protection Ministry launched a task force to examine the situation, ultimately pushing forward the plan to better the region’s air quality.
Following the approval of the program on Sunday, the finance minister described the Haifa Bay’s pollution as “a national problem,” therefore requiring a national program.
“We are determined to put the emergency plan into practice as soon as possible and for this purpose we are providing the resources and the necessary political backing,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz likewise voiced his support for the program, adding that his ministry is simultaneously promoting a plan to encourage the use of electricity and natural gas in vehicles in order to reduce emissions. The ministry is also working to remove barriers to enable a larger scale transition to the use of gas, even in private vehicles, he said.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman also discussed the importance of approving the program, stressing its dual environmental and health benefits.
“The program is a real message to the residents of Haifa and has come together thanks to the mobilization of professional teams from the Environmental Protection and Health ministries that worked together in order to reduce environmental pollution and prevent illness,” Litzman said. “The implementation of the national program will bring a fundamental change in the quality of life of citizens and prevent environmental contamination.”
Responding to the cabinet authorization on Sunday, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav praised Gabbay for the program’s passage, reminding residents that they can attend a public hearing on the subject on Tuesday.
“The National Plan is real, good news of decisive environmental significance for the future of the Haifa Bay,” Yahav said. “The Israeli government rolled up its sleeves to reveal for the first time national responsibility for the health and quality of life of residents of the Haifa metropolitan area.”