The Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee will hold an emergency session on Monday to examine a tragic ammonia leak in the Emek Hefer industrial park that left a firefighter dead and injured 20 other people.
Monday’s meeting is expected to include Environmental Protection Ministry director- general David Lefler, CEO of the Hod Hefer Ltd. Poultry Processing Plant Yossi Dadya, Emek Hefer Regional Council chairman Rani Idan and Fire and Rescue Services representatives.
“This is a most serious incident; there is no doubt that there was some oversight here that resulted in the death of firefighter Samer Asli,” committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud) said. “I will demand an investigation as to how the leak occurred and what caused the death of the firefighter.”
Asli, 34 from Kafr Kara, was buried in a ceremony at his village on Friday.
The leak, which forced nearby residents to stay indoors for hours Thursday night, is suspected to have been caused by factory workers who accidentally cut two pipes linked to the ammonia tank that leaked.
Immediately following the incident, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz (Hatnua) announced that he was launching an investigation run by his ministry’s Green Police in conjunction with its hazardous materials department. Researchers in the field would be reviewing all action taken before and after the event, as well as the plant’s compliances with the rules and conditions prescribed by the law.
“It should be noted that at the plant in question, all routine tests were conducted according to the law and no abnormal findings were discovered during those tests,” a statement from the ministry said.
Environmental activists, such as members of the student organization Green Course, argued that this incident points directly to the need to move the even larger ammonia container facility from the Haifa Bay region.
That 12,000-ton tanker, owned by Haifa Chemicals, supplies ammonia to factories all over the country, such as the Hod Hefer poultry facility.
“Hazardous substances must be removed from residential areas immediately,” a statement from Green Course said.
Green Course members added that the Hod Hefer incident is just “a small taste of a disaster waiting around the corner.”
Haifa area residents and environmentalists have long been advocating the removal of the tanker, arguing its presence in such a populated area constitutes a major threat to their security.
In March 2012, the government therefore decided that the tanker must close and move to an unpopulated portion of the Negev by 2017.
Peretz made clear in spring 2013 that he also would refuse to renew the plant’s license after 2016. In January 2014, the ministry and the Israel Lands Authority published a joint tender for the establishment of a Negev ammonia production facility.
Replacing the tanker entirely, the future production facility in the Negev will generate ammonia on-site in a much safer manner, Peretz told The Jerusalem Post in an October interview. Most facilities in need of ammonia are actually located in the Negev region, thereby reducing the need for heavy trucking, he explained.
Maya Jacobs, CEO of the environmental organization Zalul, accused the government of delaying the construction of the plant in the Negev due to “foot-dragging and bureaucracy, while the time bomb continues to tick.”
“If an 8-ton tank was able to paralyze the entire area of Emek Hefer and send thousands to close themselves up in their homes, what will happen when a tanker containing 12,000 tons is struck?” Jacobs asked.
In response to the specific event, the Israel Institute for Occupational Safety and Hygiene has also issued refreshers as to how employees can protect themselves in case of exposure to the highly flammable and explosive material.
If a person is exposed to the material, he may suffer both immediately and in the longterm in the eyes, skin and respiratory tract, the institute warned.
In case of an explosion, the fire must be cooled immediately by spraying water on the tanks and by extinguishers if the fire spreads. Those exposed must seek medical attention as soon as possible and breathe fresh air. A person exposed to ammonia fumes will suffer a burning sensation, sore throat and difficulty in breathing, the institute added.
If skin is exposed to ammonia, the worker must remove any contaminated clothing immediately and wash the skin with plenty of water, as well as seek medical attention, the institute information said. For eye exposure, the worker should rinse his eyes. If the material is swallowed, the worker should rinse his mouth immediately and refrain from inducing vomiting.
Employers must make sure they are in properly ventilated spaces and using breathing protection, as well as wearing protective gloves and full protective gear when necessary, the information said.
Eating, drinking, smoking and wearing contact lenses during work around ammonia should be avoided, and employees should be wearing eye protection at all times, the institute added.