Haifa Bay’s 12,000-ton ammonia tank.
(photo credit: MAX YELINSON/ MAARIV)
Leaving the fate of the Haifa Bay’s controversial ammonia storage container still uncertain, the Haifa Local Affairs Court extended the site’s temporary closure on Thursday afternoon pending further discussion on Sunday.
The court convened on Thursday in response to the Haifa Municipality’s request to shut down the container entirely, after a report published last week indicated that the tank could kill thousands in the region. Long seen as a security risk by Israeli environmental activists and politicians alike, the 12,000 cubic meter tank in question began to receive international attention when Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack it last February.
On Wednesday afternoon, Judge Sigalit Gatz-Ofir issued a closure order for the tank, valid until Thursday’s discussion. After a lengthy day of debates on Thursday, the court elected to keep the closure intact until a follow-up discussion scheduled for noon on Sunday.
The report that prompted the municipality’s appeal, prepared by a team of researchers, concluded that a strike on the facility and ammonia delivery vessels could bring catastrophe to the region.
While an attack on the container itself could lead to the deaths of thousands of residents, an attack on the ships conveying the ammonia to the region could kill hundreds of thousands – “numbers that were inconceivable in any apocalyptic scenario ever described by the security establishment in the State of Israel,” according to the report.
Before the court’s decision on Thursday to extend the closure, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin told Army Radio that the ministry would not allow Haifa Chemicals “to jeopardize the gulf.”
“We are turning the table and saying to Haifa Chemicals that it is wrong,’” Elkin said. “This is not the problem of the State of Israel, because it [Haifa Chemicals] is the chief consumer of ammonia.
If it thinks that until the issue is resolved it will be able to use the container and continue to endanger the residents of the Haifa Bay, we will not allow that to happen.”
Although Elkin acknowledged on Thursday that the court did have the power to revoke the business license of the plant on the spot, he stressed that evacuating the tank safely and finding small ammonia containers to satisfy the country’s needs could take several months.
On Tuesday, during the Environment 2050 Conference in Tel Aviv, Elkin warned that if Haifa Chemicals does not come up with a clear plan to remove the ammonia tank from the Haifa Bay area, the Environmental Protection Ministry would not extend its permit, which expires on March 1. Such a decision would, in effect, shut down the container, which would be unable to operate.
Slamming Haifa Chemicals for its “passive attitude” and reliance on the government to provide a solution, Elkin said on Tuesday that the ministry has chosen “to change the rules of the game.” As the main consumer of ammonia in the country, the company has the responsibility of handling the ammonia problem, the minister explained.
“We told Haifa Chemicals that if it does not present a clear plan to reduce the risk, i.e., to remove the ammonia tank from Haifa Bay, we will not extend its poison permit, and will create a situation where the tank will be shut,” Elkin said.
“This was an ultimatum – a clear plan or closure of the tank. We are gearing up for a battle that will not be simple.”