The Haifa Municipal Court ordered a delay in the cancellation of Israel Oil Refineries Ltd. (ORL) business licenses on Monday, a day after the city’s mayor issued termination orders to the company and its subsidiaries.
Honoring ORL’s request, the court granted an injunction to delay the cancellation until a future decision, scheduling a discussion in the presence of both parties for Tuesday, the firm reported to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
After blockading factory entrances with municipal trucks on Sunday morning, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav sent license cancellation letters later that day to Israel Corporation- owned ORL and its subsidiaries Carmel Olefins and Gadiv Petrochemical Industries Ltd., as well as to Haifa Chemicals.
In doing so, Yahav argued that recently circulated data linking air pollution to cancer incidence in the Haifa Bay region indicate that these facilities “constitute a risk to residents of Haifa.”
The data in question resurfaced after Prof. Itamar Grotto, director of the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services, recently sent a letter to the appeals supervisor in the Interior Ministry’s National Planning Administration, in response to objections regarding the expansion of oil refineries in the area.
Grotto primarily based his letter on a 2013 article published in the American Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, which examined cancer prevalence in the Haifa region from 1998 through 2007.
Citing the article, he explained that over the 10-year period, about 780 of the 4,860 cancer cases found in the region likely resulted from air pollution.
Of the 60 cancer cases that occurred in children from ages 0 to 14, about 30 were probably linked to air pollution, he wrote.
Although acknowledging the gravity of air pollution problems in the region, both the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection agreed that monitoring efforts and regulatory steps taken in recent years have significantly improved air quality.
During the past six years alone, the Environment Ministry said, air pollution levels have decreased by 70 percent.
Nonetheless, Yahav is demanding that the government immediately clarify the “real data,” adding that until he has a clear understanding of the true situation in the region, he “will not allow the operation of fuels and chemicals in the Haifa Bay.”
Meanwhile, about 15 km. south from Haifa, residents of the coastal Carmel town of Atlit followed in the mayor’s footsteps on Monday morning, by blockading a factory within their jurisdiction.
Accusing the Carmel Resins factory of violating business license terms and contaminating the surrounding environment, several dozen Atlit residents protested outside the plant’s fences and briefly prevented company trucks from passing through the area. On Monday evening, Atlit parents and children who could not make it to the morning protest gathered to demonstrate once again on a town soccer field near the factory, which is a subsidiary of Gil Dankner’s Dor Chemicals.
“The events in the past week in Haifa triggered the rage in our community,” Nir Moses-Heller, the spokesman for the Atlit residents, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday afternoon. “We are struggling for almost 10 years.”
Most recently, residents faced issues with the factory in June 2014, when they reported harsh chemical odors and burning sensations in their eyes to the Environmental Protection Ministry. After detecting a spillage of benzyl chloride, the ministry temporarily revoked the plant’s permit for hazardous materials production.
Following this incident, the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council sent Carmel Resins notice that it would be canceling the firm’s business license, but first allowing a 60-day response time that was eventually doubled, Moses-Heller explained. He added that as of November 2014, the factory has been operating without a proper business license.
Regarding the legal status of the factory, a spokesman for Hof Hacarmel Regional Council – in which Atlit is located – stressed that the council “operates strictly according to the powers vested in it by law,” including in terms of business licensing. Documents obtained from the Environmental Protection Ministry indicated that Carmel Resins significantly reduced its hazardous materials usage in the past year, which enabled the ministry to grant an emissions permit, the spokesman explained.
“The plant is in the midst of regulatory proceedings and has already received approval from the Israel Fire and Rescue Services,” the spokesman said. “Therefore, from a legal perspective, there is no basis to file in these circumstances an indictment against the factory on the basis of failing to comply with a business license.”
Oran Uzrad, deputy chairman of Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, stressed that over the course of the past year, the Atlit residents and the regional council members have been “fighting a common struggle” and together made several achievements.
“The plant significantly reduced the amount of hazardous substances, the level of emissions from the plant decreased substantially, the level of emissions monitoring and transparency of data increased and the plant operates according to the most stringent fire standards,” Uzrad added.
However, about a month and a half ago, the Environmental Protection Ministry once again revoked a Carmel Resins toxins permit – this time specifically for the production of formalin, a commercial solution of formaldehyde, the ministry said on Monday. As part of an enforcement operation, ministry officials said they decided to rescind the permits for this material, which they described as “an essential material to the production process at the factory.”
In response to the protests, a spokesman for Carmel Resins stressed that the factory has been “an important element in the creation of Atlit” since its establishment in the 1960s.
Since the original Carmel Chemicals site was shut down in December 2013 and replaced by Carmel Resins, the factory has reduced its use of hazardous materials by 90%, the spokesman said. Over the past three years, the factory has converted a significant portion of its production line to items not based on hazardous materials, and all products have been deemed non-dangerous, he added.
“As part of our respect for the residents of Atlit and the desire to maintain good neighborly relations with them, all transport trucks to and from the plant travel via a detour rather than through residential areas,” the spokesman said. “Factory activity is monitored and checked continuously by the Hadera District Municipal Association for the Environment and is regularly monitored by the various authorities.”
Moses-Heller and his fellow Atlit activists maintained, however, that they are determined “to close the compound.”
“The factory is 200m. from our houses, near the train station, 500m.
from the elementary school,” he said.
Describing how residents intermittently smell fumes emanating from the factory and hear about regulators identifying problems, Moses-Heller said that they “don’t have any trust in the system.”
Praising Yahav for signing closure orders in Haifa, Moses-Heller called upon the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council chairman to do the same.
“We just want the regulators and the government to protect us,” he said. “If they are allowing this factory to keep working while they know it is not [doing so according to] regulation, they are not fulfilling their obligation to us. They need to protect us.”