President Peres: Pollution as dangerous as terror

Green group's annual report stresses industry's, gov't's indifference to major environmental threats.

air pollution 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
air pollution 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Environmental pollution in Israel is no less dangerous than the threat of terrorism, President Shimon Peres said Sunday. Peres received the annual report on the status of the environment from Tzipi Iser Itzik, executive director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), known in Hebrew as Adam, Teva V'Din, during a ceremony at Beit Hanassi. The report highlights several specific instances of pollution and evaluates governmental and industrial responses to pollution threats. It also evaluates several legal mechanisms that are meant to protect the environment. In contrast to terrorism, which is the strategy of an external foe, Peres said, environmental pollution is something that comes from within our midst. Even though it is sometimes silent and invisible, he said, it is nonetheless a grave danger that must be eradicated as quickly as possible. Peres called on the government, local authorities, industrialists and all Israeli citizens to join in the battle against this enemy from within. The IUED chose three representative examples of pollution and its treatment to highlight a larger point; that no one is concerned with taking precautionary measures to prevent environmental disasters from occurring. The IUED gathered all available information on the explosion at the Machteshim factory at the Ramat Hovav Industrial Park last August 14, which spewed a white cloud of pollutants into the air. Using what little information they could garner, after requests for information on the chemicals being used at the industrial park went unanswered by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the IUED scientists determined that the only thing that had prevented that blast from becoming a major catastrophe was the time of year the accident occurred. If it had been a cold winter night instead of a warm summer day, the explosion would have hurled concentrations of lethal chemicals as far as Beersheba and the area of the IDF training base to be built nearby. Furthermore, the report said, 38 minor accidents had occurred in 2006, any one of which could potentially have been catastrophic. The IUED suggested conducting a thorough threat assessment of Ramat Hovav's factories. According to the report, no such assessment has been carried out at the industrial complex. The IUED also highlighted a curious example of an initiative designed to reduce air pollution but which is polluting our drinking water. MTBE (Methyl tertiary-butyl ether) is added to gasoline to raise the octane level. It also reduces the amount of air pollution internal combustion engines produce. But when it leaks into water it makes the water undrinkable; it ruins the taste and has been found to be carcinogenic in animals. (It is suspected of being carcinogenic in humans as well.) The information on the effects of MTBE is not complete, the IUED said. However, there is no need to wait to find out how much more dangerous MTBE is than we already know, the report said. We must use the precautionary principle and not wait until irreversible health and environmental damage is done, the report concluded. Many states in the United States have already banned MTBE as a gasoline additive. While the IUED did not call for a ban immediately, they strongly urged the government to investigate the matter but do so in the public eye. They called on the Health Ministry to create a standard for acceptable amounts of MTBE in water. The IUED also suggested that potential pollution deterrents be evaluated on a holistic basis rather than focusing on a specific element, which is why MTBE was introduced into Israeli gasoline. A particularly worrying example is that of the east Tel Aviv neighborhood of Nahalat Yitzhak, the report said. There are noxious vapors pervading many of the basements and first floor apartments throughout the neighborhood, according to the report. The pollution has been traced to several factories, including one which operated nearby for nearly fifty years. The "Defender" arms factory was erected next to Nahalat Yitzhak in 1949. It used and stored hazardous materials for years until it was shut down about 10 years ago. In those years no one was really aware of the danger and did not take proper care of hazardous materials. Thus, dangerous chemicals and other materials were routinely poured into the ground near the factory. After the factory was dismantled, the environmental damage became apparent. Because of the massive ground pollution, potentially lethal vapors had built up in the surrounding basements, according to the report. These vapors were carcinogenic, lethal to many internal organs and could cause genetic damage as well. Concentrations of more than three times the "safe" limit have been found. One place they have built up is in the neighborhood Ayalon school, where the basement is routinely used by teachers and students. At present, there is no plan to treat the polluted areas, according to the IUED. What has been decided, instead, is to use special sealing materials in all new buildings. But residents in existing buildings must continue to suffer. The report also highlighted the effect of public hearings and the IDF's attitude toward environmental concerns. Following its introduction last year, the report once again listed the "IUED 25," an evaluation of the thoroughness of the environmental reports of 25 major public companies. Palram Industries and El Al headed the list with reports that divulged much of the environmental hazards the companies could create and were dealing with. Dan Automobiles ranked last, with no mention of the air pollution caused by its rental cars and leased cars. Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.