An orange blaze raged at a Haifa Bay factory nearly all day Sunday, as pillars of black smoke engulfed the area. By late afternoon, firefighters quashed the flames.
The fire overtook a benzene storage container at an Oil Refineries (Bazan) Ltd. facility – diminishing by early afternoon but soon intensifying once again.
No one was hurt. The fire’s cause is still unknown.
Explosion at Haifa refinery (Credit: Green Course)
Uri Chobotaro, spokesman of the Fire and Rescue Authority’s Hof District, told The Jerusalem Post
on Sunday evening, “Right now we have no flames, and we are spreading a large amount of foam on the side of the tank. Our goal is to make this tank cooler and cooler. We will stay here all night long until tomorrow morning.”
The container, which has a 12,000-cubic-meter capacity, was about 10% full when it caught fire, according to Oil Refineries.
When the blaze began in the morning at the facility, located in the Checkpost area of Haifa, firefighting crews immediately arrived, together with teams from the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Although a statement from Oil Refineries emphasized that “the tank is not in the vicinity of production facilities,” Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin decided to open a situation room, together with the ministry’s director-general Israel Danczinger and senior staff members, as well as the Israel Police and the Fire and Rescue Authority.
During the day, the Environment Ministry recommended that sensitive population members in the Haifa bayside suburbs of Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Yam, Kiryat Motzkin, Kiryat Bialik and Kiryat Ata avoid unnecessary trips outside. In addition, the ministry gave orders to evacuate liquefied petroleum gas tankers from factories nearby if possible, as well as to cool containers that remain in the area.
Despite the fire raging throughout the day, the ministry’s mobile air pollution monitoring unit continuously indicated that air pollution levels had not increased significantly, largely due to the rain. Yet the Environment and Health ministries still advised residents to stay away from the Checkpost area as a precaution for much of the day.
By the evening, the Environment Ministry withdrew the air pollution warning entirely, reporting that air pollution levels were sufficiently low even in the immediate area around the Oil Refineries container. “However, because the risk of a renewed conflagration still exists, the ministry recommends that the public be attentive to the updates of the police, the Fire and Rescue Authority and the ministry,” the ministry said.
As a result of the fire, the Israel Police reported throughout the day that Routes 4 and 22 were closed in both directions, and requested that members of the public refrain from driving to the area. While all traffic arteries were opened by the evening, the police said that security and rescue services would continue their operations at the container site overnight, and reminded members of the public to adhere to instructions.
Sunday’s blaze occurred a month after a series of fires raged throughout the country, including in the Haifa region. The fires that struck Israel that week destroyed some 4,100 hectares (10,100 acres) of forest, open area and urban sites around the country, taking a toll on buildings and infrastructure in Haifa in particular.
Sunday’s fire struck a raw nerve with Haifa residents and green groups due to a number of environmental issues that they have been dealing with in recent months and years.
Both Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and the Environmental Protection Ministry have sharply criticized Oil Refineries over the past few months, for several mishaps that have occurred at the company’s facilities.
On October 20, an emergency torch was ignited at Oil Refineries’ Carmel Olefins factory, two days after the ministry had summoned the company to a hearing, as a result of failures at the same factory. These malfunctions included a gas leak on September 7, faulty smokestacks on October 6, and discharge of 35 tons of leaked gases on October 7.
On Sunday, Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiate a commission of inquiry into the repeated incidents caused by Oil Refineries in the Haifa Bay area.
“The intense fire that is occurring in Haifa Bay joins an unending chain of failures and omissions that have struck Haifa Bay residents in the past decade, as a result of ORL [Oil Refineries Ltd.],” Amit Bracha, executive director of Adam Teva V’Din, said on Sunday afternoon. “We cannot wait for another check and another hearing – the prime minister must order the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the failures that led to half a million people living in close proximity to industry that endangers their health and safety.”
In response to Sunday’s fire, MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union) slammed Oil Refineries for “endangering public safety, poisoning the air and now also putting residents at risk of catching fire.
“The Israeli government has not learned from the Carmel fire [of 2010], and has not learned from the latest fires whose damage has still not been repaired,” she said. “We must not wait for a big disaster in Haifa Bay; the government must understand that it is forbidden for polluting and dangerous industry to be so close to a large residential population.”
Another sensitive issue for Haifa residents is the continued presence of a 12,000-cubicmeter ammonia container in their midst, which the mayors of the region have described as a “mortal danger.”
There is a government plan to move the container to a less populated region in the Negev desert, but the tender process for this program recently failed. Long seen as a security risk by environmental activists and politicians alike, the ammonia container received international attention when Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack it last February.
“The Haifa Bay long ago became a pressure cooker that is threatening to explode, with a drastically high concentration of fuels, hazardous chemicals and polluting factories,” MK Dov Henin (Joint List), chairman of the Knesset’s Social-Environmental Lobby, said on Sunday.
Henin called upon the government to adopt the recommendations of the Subcommittee for Examining Planning and Environment Issues at Haifa Bay, which he chaired during the previous Knesset, and which detailed ways to reduce environmental risk.