(photo credit: )
"You are prioritizing money and business over the responsibility for people's lives," wrote Environmental Protection Minister Dir.-Gen. Shai Avital, in an accusatory letter sent to the BIG company two weeks ago and revealed by the ministry on Tuesday.
It is totally irresponsible to build a shopping center next to a storage facility which holds 57 tons of poisonous ammonia, Avital charged.
Despite the strenuous objections of the ministry, BIG plans to open a shopping center in Kiryat Shmona's southern industrial zone in February 2009.
The ministry has maintained that building a shopping center, where hundreds will work and thousands will shop, in close proximity to three ammonia storage facilities represents too great a risk.
The 9,000-square-meter shopping center would include at least two dozen stores, according to the company's Web site.
The ammonia stored at the facility is used for cooling purposes by three companies in the industrial zone - Of Hagalil, Tnuva Hagalil and Kirur Hagalil. Ammonia is highly toxic.
Several district planning committees approved the plans two years ago, and a subsequent appeal by the ministry was rejected. Therefore, taking a new approach, Avital's letter warned all the involved parties that if the shopping center were to be built, the ministry would have to pull the companies' licenses to store the hazardous materials in the area.
Avital argued that the risk of accidents, such as leaks or earthquakes, was just too high. Moreover, a terror attack at the site could prove catastrophic. In fact, during the Second Lebanon War a Katyusha struck one of the factories and caused a leak. Only the fast actions of the company and the ministry had averted a disaster, the ministry pointed out.
Avital said in the letter that the Home Front Command agreed with the ministry's assessment.
"Imagine if it was tons of explosive rather than ammonia? Who would dare build a shopping center there?!" Avital demanded. All proposals for guarding against leaks or explosions have been inadequate, Avital added.
However, Ahikam Barlevy, CEO of the Galilee Development Corporation, dismissed the ministry's threat. As CEO of the Galilee Development Corporation, Barlevy is the chairman of both Of Hagalil and Kirur Hagalil.
"We will not agree to it," he told The Jerusalem Post. "The site was sold for commercial purposes and they obtained all the necessary permits. They [BIG] also got an assessment that said there was no threat. BIG actually will help because it will have a protective system against ammonia.
"We work in accordance with all regulations set by the ministries and since the Second Lebanon War we have improved the safeguards. We were assessed two months ago regarding the impact of an earthquake and we are prepared to deal with one should it occur," he said. He stressed that the ministry's appeal had been rejected.
"The ministry is fighting with the wrong weapons against the wrong opponent in this case," he concluded.
BIG responded to the allegations by saying: "BIG Kiryat Shmona was examined and approved by all the relevant committees and received the requisite building permits. The center will supply the needs of the consumers in Kiryat Shmona and its environs.
"Moreover, the BIG management has committed to providing sophisticated protection devices in the event of an ammonia leak which will in effect make the BIG center the most secure place in the area. The risk assessors who evaluated the issue and recommended the protection devices clarified that after the protective devices are installed, the risk will be less than the risk of traveling in a car."
The company added that they were surprised the ministry was picking on them specifically when there was a tourist site (Manara Cliff) just across the way with the same risk but without protection. Likewise, there were many residential neighborhoods facing the same risk, the company pointed out.