Environmentalists' laments receive presidential backing

Scathing report by leading green group cites lagging legislation and forgiving officials for sorry state of water, air and soil.

peres itzik prize 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
peres itzik prize 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An impassioned plea by Tzipi Iser Itzik, director-general of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), for the incoming government to make the environment an urgent priority, was fully endorsed by President Shimon Peres, who received the IUED's annual report on Tuesday. Iser Itzik pointed out that presidential candidates in the US had taken environmental issues very seriously and had pledged their commitment to reducing pollution and working towards more green energy. Potential prime ministers here have not made similar promises, she lamented, and voiced the hope that Peres, who is known to be an advocate for green energy and for a pollution-free environment, will be able to influence the government in that direction. Iser Itzik cited several examples of air, water and land pollution and what could be done to amend this sorry situation. So much pollution could easily be prevented, she said, adding that she hoped that 2009 would be a breakthrough year for the environment. "I share your criticism and your hope," responded Peres, who defined contemporary socialism as the distribution of quality air to all people on an equal basis. Energy in Israel is becoming a matter of economic survival, he said, adding that creative use of solar energy would do wonders for both the environment and the economy. The price of oil keeps rising and will continue to do so as oil resources become depleted, said Peres, whereas this will not apply to energy derived from harnessing the sun. While he was in Davos last week, he learned a lot about what other countries are doing to defend the environment, he said. Singapore and Norway have entered into a $6 million agreement on solar energy research, and Sweden has designated 2020 as the year in which it will free itself from oil-related energy. Israel is poised to have a sizable share in solar energy research projects, and can also play a leading role in water-related industries, he forecast. "People think of the environment in terms of poetry instead of prose," said Peres, "but the quality of the environment is the prose of our existence." Beit Hanassi is gradually being turned into a complete "green house" in terms of both energy and aesthetics, said Peres, "and will serve as a symbol to the nation." In the IUED report's foreword, Iser Itzik castigated the government for its backward environmental policy. At a time when the rest of the world views the global financial difficulties as an opportunity to introduce energy and cost-saving green processes, Israel has not taken any similar steps, according to Iser Itzik. And while global warming ranks as one of the top challenges to the world, Israel has clearly not joined the fight against it, she wrote, noting it was always cheaper to prevent pollution and global warming rather than cleaning up afterwards. The report itself focused on holes in legislation which allowed for the pollution of water, air and ground. In addition to pinpoint critiques, the report also listed who benefited the most from the lack of legislation or lack of enforcement of legislation. Regarding water, IUED noted several problems. Despite the authority to issue fines for dumping wastewater into the sea, the Environmental Protection Ministry either had not done so or had issued fines so small that it was clearly worth it to the companies to pay them rather than build waste-treatment plants. In addition, the committee that issued permits to companies to dump their wastewater into the sea had granted all but two of the 70 requests it had received in 2007, essentially becoming a rubber-stamp committee. This policy served the interests of chemical companies in Ashdod and along the Dead Sea, among others, according to the report. Despite the recommendations of government committees that had submitted their final reports years ago, the Health and Environmental Protection ministries had still not updated the regulations governing the quality of drinking water and wastewater. As a result, the quality of water is not nearly as high as it should be. Wastewater treatment is also not compliant with the best technology available. Although the Clean Air Act passed last year, the current state of the legislation is atrocious, according to the report. Lack of updated legislation continued to allow industry and transportation companies to blast pollutants into the air. The report noted that Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra had gotten the implementation of the Clean Air Act pushed off until 2011. At the time, Ezra said he needed the extra few years to hire and train additional staff to enforce the Act. Studies have found that air pollution kills over a thousand people a year in the Dan Region alone, and thousands of others suffer lung-related diseases as a result of high emissions. While the Environmental Protection Ministry has begun circulating draft legislation to deal with contaminated ground, presently there are gaping holes in the law, according to the report. As a result, companies pollute the ground with impunity or fail to rehabilitate contaminated land that they own. In urban settings, the IUED found, planning did not allow for enough green and open spaces per resident. The average in Israel is zero to three meters while in other developed countries it was as high as 14 meters per person. Moreover, municipalities and developers are systematically denuding urban areas of trees, the report said. Finally, the IUED slammed the planned construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Ashkelon, citing the air pollution it would cause. The NGO also harshly criticized the recycling companies for systematically failing to meet the goals set out in the law, and it blamed Ezra for retroactively approving that failure each year by readjusting the goals. A law should also be passed, IUED wrote, expanding the Deposit Law to 1.5-liter bottles and making the soft-drink companies directly responsible for recycling. At present, an intermediary company collects and recycles drink bottles.