(photo credit: URIA ASHKENAZY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Haifa’s residents on Sunday were once again exposed to the dangers of being in close proximity to oil refineries and chemical plants.
A fire broke out at Oil Refineries (Bazan) Ltd. sending pillars of black smoke into the air. The source of the fire, which firefighters struggled to control for long hours, was a benzene storage container. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Authorities are still investigating what caused the blaze.
The incident is yet another reminder that more needs to be done to protect some half a million residents living in the Haifa Bay vicinity. Pollution, leakage of dangerous gases, explosions and fires are all hazards which have plagued Haifa’s residents for decades.
In the 1990s a Green Party candidate successfully ran in Haifa’s municipal elections, buoyed by fears of pollution.
In 2010 the late Labor politician Benjamin Ben- Eliezer referred to the concentration of toxic materials and pollution-prone industries as an “atomic bomb.”
More recently, attention has focused on a 12,000 cubic meter ammonia storage tank. Of particular concern is the danger that the huge tank might be hit by a Hezbollah missile during a military confrontation like the 2006 Second Lebanon War. In February, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to target it.
Another concern is that a strong earthquake would destroy the storage tank and cause large quantities of ammonia to be released into Haifa’s atmosphere.
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An earthquake or missile attack could also be devastating for Haifa’s oil refineries and petrochemical industries.
In 2012, the government decided to take steps to transfer the ammonia tank to the less populated Negev. But in November, Haifa residents took to the streets to demonstrate after the Environmental Protection Ministry announced that, after years of planning, the tendering process to transfer the ammonia tank had failed. Apparently, the tender conditions were not economically feasible.
In recent months there has been a chain of malfunctions at Oil Refineries Ltd. On September 7 there was a gas leak; on October 6, the firm’s smokestacks were found to be faulty and on October 7, there was a discharge of 35 tons of leaked gases.
Headway has been made in bringing down pollution levels. At the beginning of the year the Environmental Protection Ministry, under then-minister Avi Gabbai, announced an 11% drop in air pollution levels in the industrial sector in the Haifa area compared to 2015.
Seventy-seven percent of the largest Haifa Bay industries are now required to comply with stricter emissions reduction targets. Four plants in the area spent tens of millions of shekels to install equipment that reduces emissions. Steps were also taken to rehabilitate the polluted Kishon River.
In September of last year the government approved a comprehensive five-year plan with a budget of NIS 330 million to improve air quality, mitigate environmental risks, promote research, increase accessibility to data and bolster regulatory monitoring.
Activism on the part of environmental protection NGOs helped block plans to expand Israel Oil Refineries.
Under public pressure, the National Planning and Building Council decided in September to suspend plans to increase the size of the petrochemical complex.
But more needs to be done.
We join Adam Teva V’Din in calling for a commission of inquiry headed by a Supreme Court justice that will look into safety issues at Oil Refineries Ltd and other industries in the Haifa Bay area. More Environmental Protection Ministry inspectors need to be hired to ensure that the industries are abiding by existing rules and regulations.
We respect the economic and financial constraints of Haifa Bay area’s industries. We acknowledge that it is not realistic to expect all of these industries to simply discontinue operations or spend exorbitant sums of money to move elsewhere. At the same time, it is important to recall that the environment is a resource that belongs to all Israeli citizens and that Haifa Bay’s industries have an obligation to protect this resource for the benefit of all.
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