Haifa Chemicals must empty its 12,000-ton ammonia storage tank within 10 days, the Haifa Local Affairs Court ruled on Sunday.
The court also ordered the company to refrain from adding any ammonia to the tank within that time. In addition, the firm must ensure that, by the end of the 10 days, an alternative emergency stock of ammonia is available as per the company’s contractual commitments.
“Because it is impossible to empty the container immediately due to the risks involved, the respondent is granted a period of 10 days for the purpose of emptying the tank,” the judgment said. “If circumstances arise that justify a further extension for the purpose of emptying the tank, the respondent will be permitted to apply to the court with an explanatory and detailed request for granting the extension, while specifying its mode of emptying the tank.”
Environmental activists and politicians have long seen the ammonia container, located in the Haifa Bay Industrial Zone, as a “ticking time bomb.” The ammonia processing and storage facility was established in 1989. It stores all the ammonia imported by Israel.
The tank began garnering international attention a year ago when Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack it
Following the Haifa Municipality’s appeal last week for the container to cease operations, a Haifa Local Affairs Court judge issued a temporary closure order, and on Thursday afternoon the court extended closure pending further discussion on Sunday.
The municipality filed the appeal following the publication of a report, prepared by a team of researchers, detailing the security risks of the container’s presence in the region.
The researchers, led by Prof. Ehud Keinan of the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology, concluded that an enemy strike on the facility and ammonia delivery vessels could bring catastrophe to the area.
While an attack on the container 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,” the report stated.
“To bring down the Twin Towers in New York, the terrorists did not need dozens of tons of explosives; rather, they realized the destructive potential of a giant passenger plane, full of fuel, traveling at high speeds,” the report said. “The Hezbollah secretary-general was absolutely right about the inherent destructive potential of the container and, more important, of the ammonia ship.”
The tank was slated to be moved to a less-populated location, Mishor Rotem in the Negev, but the Environmental Protection Ministry announced in November that the tendering process for the transfer had failed.
Ammonia is a highly toxic gas; exposure of just a 0.5% concentration can cause death in five-to-10 minutes, the report explained. Ordinary homes cannot be completely sealed off from ammonia and, after the gas leaks into a room, residents can only survive for a few hours.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav on Sunday congratulated the court, describing the move as “an additional achievement in a long-term struggle.”
“We will not stop until the ammonia tank is evacuated from Haifa Bay,” Yahav said. “I call upon the Environmental Protection Ministry to complete the process and to not renew the toxins permit.”
Haim Zuri, mayor of the neighboring town of Kiryat Motzkin, also praised the decision, expressing hope that the ruling would lead to the permanent closure of the facility.
“It is time to address the warnings and predicted threat from the container and move it away from a location close to the population,” Zuri said.
The Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection called the court order “a big step in reducing risks in the Haifa Bay.”
Jameela Hardal Wakim, director of Citizens for the Environment – one of the groups leading the struggle for the tank’s closure – called the decision “very dramatic and historic.”
“At long last, we are starting to see changes for the benefit of Haifa and Haifa Bay area residents,” said Hardal Wakim.
“The change is thanks to the public pressure that continued after the Haifa Municipality published the new report, which caused the judge to make a dramatic decision. Even if the plant appeals, we are at a historic crossroads, and what was possible in the past is no longer.”
MK Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), chairwoman of the Knesset Haifa Bay Caucus, welcomed the “bold and important decision.”
“The bay, for years, was becoming a ticking time bomb in terms of the health and security while the State of Israel was enabling economic interests to run it,” said Cohen Paran The Zionist Union faction praised the important ruling that will “save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Haifa Bay residents,” and called upon the government and the Environment Ministry to supervise the secure evacuation of the facility.
“We cannot forget that in the current situation Haifa Bay residents continue to live under a health threat due to continuous air pollution,” a statement from the Zionist Union said. “It is time that the government put an end to this intolerable situation and declare the area a victim of air pollution.”
MK Dov Henin (Joint List), chairman of the Knesset’s Social-Environmental lobby, said the decision was a step in the right direction and demonstrates that more and more people understand the need to reduce the presence of pollutants.
Henin, who headed the Subcommittee for Examining Planning and Environment Issues at Haifa Bay during the previous Knesset, said, “The recommendations of the subcommittee were supported by the relevant officials at a local and national level and should serves as a road map for neutralizing the environmental bomb threatening the lives and health of local residents.”