Knesset approves Clean Air Act

Enforcement obligation imposed on 11 ministries; law will go into effect at the beginning of 2011.

air pollution 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
air pollution 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel's most comprehensive environmental legislation to date, the Clean Air Act, passed into law on Tuesday. Three years and two months in the making, the law passed by a majority of 39 with no dissensions after intense negotiations brought the government on board. The law imposes some level of obligation for enforcement on no less than 11 ministries and will go into effect at the beginning of 2011. "This law requires vast manpower and more money than the state has budgeted to this issue so far," Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra said before the vote. "Without these resources, I warn you that the ministry will not be able to uphold its obligations under this law." Economic damages from transportation could conceivably amount to 2 percent of the gross national product in sick days, hospitalizations and shortened life expectancy, he said. Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee chairman Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor), who shepherded the bill to law, said it was "an historical moment where the Knesset approved a strategic environmental law unprecedented in its scope and its consequences. "Today we placed an obligation on the government to fight this ecological problem decisively," he said, "and we have joined the community of developed nations in everything concerning the environment." Committee members MK Dov Henin (Hadash) and MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) were also instrumental in bringing the bill to a vote. "Along the way, we discovered many times objections from narrow special interests," Henin said, "but at the end of the day we have instituted a law that will serve the interest of the wider public." "If the government has not yet internalized the seriousness of this issue, approving this law in the Knesset forces them to deal with the effects of pollution on health," Gafni said. Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) director-general Tzipi Iser Itsik said: "This is one of the biggest achievements in the environmental agenda. However, our work is not done and the big challenge of enforcing the law by the Environmental Protection Ministry is still before us." The bill was initially proposed in 2005 by former MK Omri Sharon (Likud) in conjunction with the IUED; after 20 marathon sessions in committee, the 97-clause legislation enshrines in law all aspects of reducing and preventing air pollution. The law comes at a time when air pollution has become a serious problem in Israel. Most large cities suffer from it, especially in the Dan region. According to the IUED, one in five children there suffers from an air pollution-related illness. More than 1,100 people a year reportedly die from air pollution in the Dan region alone. Tel Aviv ranks third in Europe in air pollution, behind Bucharest and Krakow. Air pollution rates in Israel's biggest metropolis exceed the minimum standards adopted in Europe 109 days a year. Concerted, coordinated effort should be possible for the first time with the passing of the Clean Air Act. The law standardizes matters in several related areas: planning, monitoring, standards and enforcement. The law demands that the government, led by the Environmental Protection Ministry, create a national multiyear strategy with short- and long-term goals for reducing air pollution, to be updated every five years. The plan must contain clear goals and a time line for achieving them. The law also mandates that the ministry report to the Knesset on a regular basis how well the government is implementing the act. At present, there is no national, air-quality monitoring system; instead, monitoring is conducted on a partial basis. The Act mandates a standardized national system of monitoring. The Act also empowers the environmental protection minister to set standards for acceptable pollution amounts as well as potential pollutants, such as types of gas. The minister will now have the authority to determine how much pollution factories should be allowed to emit and will issue permits accordingly. In addition, pollution from cars will also be regulated. A comparison chart ranking cars' pollution rates will also be created for public perusal. The law rises and falls on its enforcement, of course. The new Act vastly increases both the ministry's and local authorities' enforcement capabilities. For example, the ministry can now close down any factory which exceeds pollution standards. In fact, the Act strengthens all aspects of enforcement of green laws on the part of the ministry and local authorities. Polluters could receive fines varying from NIS 100,000 to NIS 1 million and could be imprisoned for as long as two years. The law also strengthens administrative oversight of all matters concerning air pollution. The government had initially objected to the bill because Ezra had said he did not have enough time or manpower to enforce the law. However, after a meeting last week to resolve the 200 reservations all of the government ministries had lodged, the act was approved for a vote on Tuesday. At the Knesset on Tuesday, Ezra brought more reservations from the ministers to specific clauses which were approved in separate votes.