'Poison cloud from chemical plant could've been prevented'

Investigatory committee recommends immediate removal of all residents within five kilometers of Ramat Hovav.

Ramat Hovav 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ramat Hovav 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An accident that released a cloud of poisonous gas from the Machteshim Chemical plant in the Ramat Hovav Industrial Park this April could have been prevented, according to the investigative committee's report released Tuesday. The committee, appointed by Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, also strongly urged Ezra to ask the Interior Ministry to evacuate all the Beduin residents within a five-kilometer radius of the industrial park, especially the Alazama school, which 2,000 kids attend and is just 2.5 km from Ramat Hovav. On April 14, a white cloud of azinphos methyl, an organophosphorus pesticide related to chemical warfare agents devoloped during World War II, swept out of the Machteshim factory, over the regional council's office and into the surrounding area. The regional council workers were rushed into protective shelters after the cloud passed through and were sent home later in the day, many of them feeling ill. The committee found that the cloud could probably have been prevented altogether if the factory management had followed proper procedure. Despite clear procedures - outlined in the permits granted to the factory for the handling of dangerous chemicals - on who to notify in such an occurence, and when, the plant did not notify the appropriate authorities (such as the regional council and the Environmental Protection Ministry) immediately after the incident. In fact, the respective authorities were not notified by the factory at all, and only became aware of the incident several hours later when workers in the area reported the cloud. Only after receiving a call from the ministry's report center did the manager admit that there had been an incident. According to the committee's report, the factory lost electrical power at around 10:30 in the morning, at which time the management decided to destroy the Azinphos Methyl being prepared, because without proper temperature and pressure conditions the compound becomes a toxic gas. However, while this decision was correct, the factory did not have proper procedures in place for neutralizing the chemicals. Had they called the authorities at this point, it is likely the spillage could have been prevented altogether, the authors of the report said. However, the management attempted to deal with the problem internally. Rigging a makeshift procedure took so long that the compound in two of the containers being transferred to the neutralizing machine underwent a phase change, thus causing the cloud, as well as a stream of pollutants into the surrounding area, discovered by the committee during an inspection. The committee stated that the factory had not learned from previous similar instances but instead had reacted as though it were a "negligible" incident. They also noted that an Magen David Adom team stationed at the site was forced to take cover in a shelter instead of helping treat people because they had not had any forewarning. The committee wrote that its investigative efforts were hindered by Machteshim's management, which objected to the fact that an Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) specialist was part of it. The management cited an ongoing legal dispute with IUED as the reason it refused to take part, lest whatever information they revealed be used against them in the other issue. However, even after the specialist was excused from the committee, the factory continued to withhold documents and its legal counsel prevented employees from testifying. The committee also suggested that the factory was in violation of its permits and should not be allowed to begin operating again until all issues had been resolved. The ministry presented the report to the company on Tuesday and gave them two weeks to outline their plans for rectifying the failures cited therein.