'Israel faces severe raw materials shortage'

National Infrastructures Minister Ben-Eliezer vows to protect quarry rehabilitation fund's budget from Treasury.

quarry 224 88 (photo credit: The Foundation for Rehabilitating Quarries)
quarry 224 88
(photo credit: The Foundation for Rehabilitating Quarries)
It is somewhat counterintuitive to have the people responsible for developing mines and quarries also be the ones in charge of rehabilitating them, but in the case of Petroleum Commissioner Dr. Yaakov Mimran this arrangement seems to be working. Mimran is also the head of the Quarries Rehabilitation Fund (QRF), which rehabilitates several dozen quarries a year, even as Mimran advocates for more to be dug. At a special press conference this past Thursday, Mimran and National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer warned that there would be shortages in raw materials by 2020. There are currently 80 working quarries in Israel, and about a thousand which have been tapped out and are in need of rehabilitation. However no new quarry has been approved by the national planning council in the last 14 years, Yossi Bar-Niv, national quarry inspector at the Israel Lands Authority, told The Jerusalem Post. Mimran warned that several basic raw materials were in danger of depletion. Aggregate (gravel), basalt, sand, phosphates, and lime for cement have become or will shortly become scarce in Israel, he said. The lack of such basic raw materials will inexorably push up costs, both for the materials themselves and for consumers, he warned. Bar-Niv pointed out that the cost of basalt had gone from NIS 20 per ton to NIS 100 per ton in just three years. After recently completing an exhaustive survey of existing quarries, Ben-Eliezer and Mimran announced on Thursday that by 2015 Israel would be relying on just 27 quarries to produce 45 million tons of raw materials per year. By 2015, they said they expected a 435 million ton shortage in aggregate and a 1,008 million ton shortage by 2035. Aggregate is critical to the construction industry. At present there are 60 quarries producing aggregate, but Mimran said that by 2026 most would be tapped out, shut down and rehabilitated. He also said there would be a shortage in sand: Dune sand has been running out, so he and the minister have suggested using quarried sand instead. A national strategic plan for opening more quarries was needed, Ben-Eliezer and Mimran argued. Part of the ecological damage attributed to quarries had been caused by pirate operations - quarries which had been opened by private individuals and were not under the supervision of the government, the petroleum commissioner noted. A national plan would enable an increase in supply, which would make such unsupervised quarries unneccessary. Bar-Niv explained to the Post during a tour of the Fund's activities in Machtesh Ramon two months ago that, in actuality, bigger quarries were easier to rehabilitate than smaller ones, which are just holes in the ground. Most pirate quarries are small, while regulated ones tended to be much much larger, he said. The QRF, which has rehabilitated over 200 quarries in the past few years, can even begin rehabilitating one part of a quarry while the rest is still in use. Some quarries are merely returned to nature, or used for building. Sometimes, quarries can even be turned into environmental assets - earlier this year, the QRF turned a gigantic quarry near Binyamina into a park, named Park Carmel. The QRF was originally founded in 1978 but received much of its statutory authority in the 1990s. It is funded by mining companies, which pay a fee to mine and also contribute a percentage to the fund for every ton of material they remove. That budget, around NIS 300 million total or about NIS 30 million per year, has until now been dedicated solely to rehabilitating quarries. However, the Finance Ministry has tried since 2002 to gain control of that budget. Mimran went all the way to the Supreme Court to get an injunction against the Treasury. "If the Treasury gets control of the budget, then instead of rehabilitating about 20 or 30 quarries a year, they would decide how many would be rehabilitated per year. They could decide to use the money for something else. The bottom line would be far fewer quarries rehabilitated each year," he told the Post during the Machtesh Ramon tour. On Thursday, Ben-Eliezer promised to do what he could to keep the Finance Ministry's hands off the budget. "I ordered the appropriate officials in the National Infrastructures Ministry to work out a way to ensure the independence of the fund's budget through legislation in the context of wider legislative reform concerning mines," Ben-Eliezer said. The QRF has also been very active in Machtesh Ramon. Much of what one sees when driving down Highway 40 through the Machtesh looks natural because of the efforts of the fund. They recently completed rehabilitating 30 quarries (4,000 dunams worth) at a cost of NIS 15 million, and their next project is to turn three gigantic linked quarries into a hiking path and natural swimming pool deep in the Machtesh. The Fund does not blithely attempt to return the quarry to its former state - a near impossibility, Nature and Parks Authority Ranger Ben Drori said during the tour. When a quarry is tapped out, what is left is a gigantic hole in the ground and piles of dirt surrounding it. The dirt is pushed back in and the landscape artistically made up to resemble its surroundings. However, if an interesting geologic formation has been unintentionally revealed by the quarrying, as has happened in the Machtesh in various places, then the formation will be showcased rather than just covered up in an attempt to put the area back the way it was, he said. Bar-Niv attempted to put in perspective the undeniable need for raw materials and the undeniable blight quarries produce. "Basalt is mixed into paved roads and it cuts down on braking time by 60 percent. The basalt helps water run off the roads rather than pooling on them. Moreover, it absorbs noise, making the roads much quieter. So, should we no longer mine basalt because of the environmental damage quarries cause?" he asked. At least with the QRF in action, the total environmental damage can be greatly minimized.