Bad Air in Base City

Will moving training camps to the Negev come at the expense of soldiers' health?

25base (photo credit: IDF)
(photo credit: IDF)
Cover story of Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. One day last November, eight yellow bulldozers rumbled onto a site in the central Negev, to start work on the infrastructure for the country's biggest military project in recent years - an enormous, multibillion-dollar complex of military bases popularly known as "Training Base City." The army had anticipated a massive protest from environmentalist organizations and even began work a day earlier than originally announced. Nevertheless, word got out, and a few dozen protesters showed up carrying placards calling on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to "clean up Ramat Hovav first or you'll have sick soldiers on your hands later," and "An army camp near Ramat Hovav is like a death sentence for soldiers." And only two hours after they started, the massive machinery retreated, obeying a stop-work injunction obtained by environmental activists, concerned that the nearby Ramat Hovav industrial park and national hazardous-waste disposal plant constituted a threat to the health of the thousands of soldiers the army intends to train at the vast facility. The Beersheba District Court issued the original injunction in response to a petition by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) which, together with other environmental organizations, opposes construction of the base without first ensuring that soldiers' health will not be endangered by pollution from Ramat Hovav, less than 10 kilometers away, home to a number of chemical plants and the waste site, which absorbs tens of thousands of tons of hazardous toxic waste every year. Subsequent to its initial stop-work order, the District Court rejected the petition. IUED has appealed to the High Court of Justice, which upheld the stop work injunction until after the environmentalists' petition is heard, in late February or early March. Until then, the site remains wind-swept and deserted. Health surveys carried out among the Beduin living close to Ramat Hovav have shown persistently high rates of eye infections, miscarriages, birth defects and respiratory illnesses, particularly asthma in children under 6 (see box, page 14). Other surveys have shown that residents of the greater Beersheba area are more susceptible than the rest of the population to birth defects, respiratory diseases and cancer. Health ministry officials insist that there is no direct proof that these rates are due to exposure to toxic emissions from the chemical industries, but these assurances, offset by media reports (often sensational) regarding epidemiological studies - do little to calm the public's fears. Training Base City (known in Hebrew as Ir Habahadim - bahad being the acronym for training base) is planned to rise some 20 kms (12 miles) from Beersheba. Expected to be completed by 2012, the 25-billion shekel (about $7 billion dollars) 1,600-dunam (400 acre) complex will house some 9,000 soldiers, including 500 career officers and non-commissioned officers, along with a support staff of 2,000. The area will accommodate almost all of the IDF's training schools, many of which are now located on prime real estate in the center of the country that will then be sold off to real estate developers. Among the training bases due to be moved to the new facility are those of the Medical Corps, the Home Front Command, logistics, education, ground corps maintenance and human resources divisions and the military police academy. The new base is designed to function like a real city - complete with a train station, internal public transportation, a sports center, a hospital, movie theater and a shopping mall. The army has prepared an English-language promotional film to appeal to donors abroad to help fund some of the amenities. Military officials have promised that clustering the bases would upgrade training and decrease costs. But the project, if and when it gets under way, would also have far-reaching economic and social implications for the Negev and go some of the way to realizing the almost forgotten vision of Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who saw settling the desert as the country's future. Knesset Member Amir Peretz, who lives in Sderot, the dusty, Qassam-stricken development town some 37 miles away, has predicted that the project will create thousands of employment opportunities, providing hope for the economically depressed Negev. "This is a historical decision that will create a completely new reality and is one of the most important issues this government has dealt with since its establishment," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared, after the cabinet gave the project its final stamp of approval in April 2007, following years of delays, mostly due to concerns over the proximity of Ramat Hovav. Now the High Court of Justice must decide if, in making its decision, the government took those concerns into account The Ramat Hovav industrial park is home to 17 flourishing agro and petrochemical plants and pharmaceutical companies - including the drug giant Teva's Teva-Tech subsidiary; fertilizer manufacturers Makhteshim Agan, and Bromine Compounds - which use some of the most toxic and flammable chemicals known to chemistry. Some of the materials being emitted by the plants, such as methylene chloride and methyl bromide, are considered highly carcinogenic. The national hazardous-waste disposal plant is the only place in the country for treating materials that pose environmental and health hazards and for burying them. Unlike the privately owned companies, it is run by the government-owned Environmental Services Company (ESC). Since its inception, the site - particularly the toxic waste dump - has been plagued with troubles: breakdowns, malfunctions and near disasters, including fires involving dangerous chemicals and leaks of poisonous gases. In 1998, a calamity was barely avoided when a huge fire erupted in a shed in which lithium batteries, potentially toxic to humans, were stored. Over the years, environmental activists and citizens' groups have mounted dozens of protests over a range of problems associated with the site, including nauseating smells and the fear of possible long-term effects of continued exposure to whatever agents were (and may still be) released into the air or leached into the groundwater. In 2002, the army shut down its firing ranges near Ramat Hovav, following numerous complaints of headaches, dizziness and nausea from soldiers serving in the area. The most recent alarming mishap took place in August 2007, just months after the government decision to approve construction of the camp. An explosion occurred at a reactor at the Makhteshim Agan industries, releasing suprathion, a potentially lethal organic phosphoric substance. A number of factory employees were slightly injured, others were evacuated to secure areas, and nearby industries were evacuated. A Ministry of Environment monitoring team identified remnants of the toxic substance at a distance of one kilometer from the factory and one of the main highways leading into Beersheba was closed for hours. On that day, Ibrahim Abu A'afash was in Beersheba when the police called his cellphone, informing him that his village of Wadi el-Na'am, which is less than 500 meters from Ramat Hovav in some places, would have to be evacuated. Abu A'afash is a leader of the Beduin village, an unrecognized collection of 6,000 Beduin, more than half of them children, who live mainly in tents and shacks, without sanitation or electricity. Despite its precarious location, there is no siren or other means to provide immediate warning of danger to the villagers and no contingency plans for evacuation have been prepared. Abu A'afash drove hurriedly to the unpaved access road leading to the settlement, but police wouldn't let him through. "I could tell by the direction the wind was blowing who was going to be harmed," Abu A'afash, who called everyone he knew to see how they were faring, tells The Report. "People closest to Ramat Hovav were vomiting, but by that time the worst was over. The cloud of gases had passed. No one came to help. Fortunately, most of the children were up north on a special trip," he stresses, noting that no contingency plans are in place for evacuating residents. One month after the explosion, a group of Israeli human rights and environmental organizations issued a damning report on the failure of the authorities to adequately respond to residents' needs after the mishap at Ramat Hovav. "Even though the danger was known, and despite the many warnings regarding the need to establish a system of measures to protect the villagers, the state authorities did not take the necessary measures," the report, entitled "Living on the Edge," accuses. The report also sharply criticizes the authorities for failing to conduct a serious investigation into the incident and its effect on those living in the "danger zone" near Ramat Hovav. In contrast, the Environment Ministry's report into the incident praises the emergency services and environment protection teams for their fast action in the field - but does list recommendations for further inquiry. Whatever happened and didn't happen that day, the explosion propelled the plans to build Training Camp City so close to Ramat Hovav onto front page news. If managing the environmental impact of the zone was not considered of urgent national importance before, it certainly is now. And in the background, both the public and the IDF are mindful of the fate of the dozens of Navy frogmen who developed various forms of cancer, including skin, lung and colon cancer, after training between 1948 and 2000 in the Kishon River, north of Haifa, once a notorious dumping ground for seven chemical plants. Testimonies before a commission of inquiry accused the navy of knowing of the river's polluted state and the hazardous petrochemicals in the region as early as the 1950s, yet contend that commanders ignored the situation and continued to train there. The IDF has accepted the inquiry's report that no clear link between the training in the contaminated waters and the high incidences of cancer has been found - yet the IDF has stopped all training there and the damage to the IDF's reputation has been severe. The controversy over the huge training complex revolves around one central question: Has everything been done to guarantee the environmental stability of the area around Ramat Hovav? Or, as the environmentalists contend: Are the IDF, the Negev officials and the government counting on Israel's infamous "just wing it and everything will be alright" mentality. The (IUED) doesn't think that everything that can and should be done has been done. Neither do members of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, who in a stormy meeting at the beginning of January 2008 expressed astonishment that the government had agreed a year ago to establish the training complex near Ramat Hovav, even though the Cabinet had not been fully apprised of the extent of the pollution in the area. The contentious Knesset committee meeting had been convened to discuss the health and environmental hazards associated with Training Camp City, in light of the findings presented by DHV, a Dutch environmental consulting group. The firm had been commissioned by the Environment Ministry three years ago to evaluate whether pollution associated with the industrial zone would endanger the training complex, and whether this danger was likely to decrease. It was on the basis of this report, which remains classified and unavailable to the public, that the government made its decision last April to give final approval for construction. The Environment Ministry did release a summary of the report before the Knesset meeting. Even according to that brief summary, the report, based, among other factors, on computer simulations of the spread of 12 dangerous pollutants, stipulates that Training Camp City should not face any environmental threats - if the Ramat Hovav industries institute pollution control measures according to European Union standards and appropriate safeguards are put in place. Moreover, the DHV report deals only with traceable emissions, not with possible mishaps such as explosions. Members of the Knesset committee were enraged that they had been given only a summary of the report. Snapped Yossi Beilin (Meretz-Yahad), "The moment the entire report is not available, this raises suspicions that something is being hidden." They were hardly mollified when Deputy General of the Environment Ministry Yossi Inbar "explained" that the report had not yet been completed and that some of the report's findings required revaluation. Nor were their reservations allayed when representatives of the Ramat Hovav industries, the Ramat Hovav Regional council, Environmental Ministry representatives and even the Dutch consulting firm itself, all grudgingly admitted that the report was unreliable, since it was based mainly on assumptions and simulations, rather than on actual collected data. And the parliamentarians were incensed when it became apparent that the original report, which had been highly critical of dangerous emissions from the zone, had been replaced by a less-damning version after the companies complained about the results and submitted "new" data. As the Knesset committee meeting concluded, it became clear that, in fact, there are three versions of the crucial report - none of which have ever been made public in full. Sputtered Ophir Pines-Paz, chairman of the Knesset Environment Committee, "I don't understand this wheeling and dealing over what should be a scientific report," adding that he suspected that the Ministry officials are not releasing the full report because "they are afraid of the public reaction and the panic it might cause." But while the committee can make recommendations, it has no authority to intervene in the situation. The Defense Ministry has gone on the defensive, promoting the giant project as an environmentally friendly base that will protect its surroundings. Plans for the facility, officials note, include the use of solar electricity, processing of waste water and garbage recycling. Landscaping, the IDF promises, will be based on desert plants and a computerized irrigation system will save water. All of which is very correctly green, but doesn't relate to the main thrust of the opposition: that is, the health and environmental hazards facing those who now live in the area and those who are expected to live in Training Camp City. A military source close to Training Camp City tells The Report, "We're saying to the greens organizations, don't oppose this project, we will be the state's policeman on Ramat Hovav. No one is going to endanger soldiers. We will together clean up Ramat Hovav from all the dangerous materials." The source contends that the project has expedited long-delayed legislation, which will force companies located in Ramat Hovav to comply with strict regulations governing toxic emissions. "Before we [the IDF] started to talk about the base, no one did anything about Ramat Hovav. Beersheba couldn't do anything by itself," he states. The (IUED) says that the army's contention that its presence will force Ramat Hovav industries to tow the line is specious. "We are not opposed to development in the Negev, which deserves more attention than it gets now," says Aviad Oren, IUED spokesman. "What we are saying is to do it wisely. If 11,000-12,000 people are going to move there, let's do this first. We have to solve the problem of Ramat Hovav - all of us agree. If you want to build a major base, we say let's finish cleaning up Ramat Hovav, so that it's safe, then do whatever you want." In fact - and in law - there have been significant improvements since 2002, regarding environmental pollution from Ramat Hovav, both in terms of emissions from the private companies and fumes expelled in waste-treatment pools on the site. In December 2006, after years of delay, protracted legal proceedings and a complicated arbitration process, the major companies in Ramat Hovav agreed to most of the Ministry of Environment's demands for regulation, including biological treatment and evaporation systems for toxic wastes and [Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) or Thermal Oxidizer Units (TOU), filters according to European Union standards, which minimize or absorb poisonous gases and neutralize smells. The plants agreed to implement all necessary improvements by 2010. A spokesman for the Defense Ministry says this will leave a "two-year safety period" for manning the army camp in 2012, "after the strict implementation of the directives set out by the Environment Ministry. If we are not completely convinced that there is no risk to the soldiers, we will not open the camp." Even Bilha Givon, executive director of the non-profit environmental group Sustainable Development for the Negev (SDN), who in past years was one of the most ardent critics of the industrial complex in Ramat Hovav, seems to have become a convert. Givon calls the arbitrated agreement a landmark in relations between environmentalists and industry. "It's not like it was in the past, when it was a shocking mess, with barrels containing toxic materials abandoned willy-nilly. This is no longer the case. They work to European and American standards. The major companies are very wealthy, and have invested billions of shekels in advanced technologies to protect the environment, in the last four years," she tells The Report. Givon attributes this to a combination of public pressure and self-interest. "The companies have clear economic incentives for safeguarding the health of their employees and protecting the environment," she says, noting that nearly 35 percent of the population of the Negev is somehow connected to Ramat Hovav. In addition to 6,000 employees, there are some 3,500 sub-contractors and vendors. "Teva, for example, one of the most advanced companies in the Negev, with an international reputation, hires 100 new employees every year. They can't take chances." As a result of the arbitrated agreement with the companies, there is now is a system of real-time monitoring in place, which measures emissions inside and outside the perimeters of Ramat Hovav. (The read-out can be viewed on the Ministry of Interior's website.) Ramat Hovav officials claim that this system ensures acceptable levels of air pollution and toxic fumes emissions. Critics, however, point out that one can see exactly which gas is being emitted and when - but not necessarily where. Dr. Arye Wenger, an air quality expert in the IUED scientific department, points out that if gases are released other than through chimneys, the source is hard to trace. "Currently, no one knows what the plant emissions are, how much they need to be reduced, and what the hazards are in the area," maintains Wenger. But there are still many loose ends regarding effective enforcement. The only real legal weapon available for ensuring that the plants indeed adhere to the standards is the threat of withholding the license to operate a business. Ramat Hovav is governed by an "Industrial Council," one of only two such independent councils in the country. (The other is in the Tefen industrial area in the Galilee, established by industrialist Stef Werthheimer.) By law, the Council, together with the Ministry of Environment, has the power to withhold business licenses, if a plant does not take specific steps to curb dangerous gas emissions or deal satisfactorily with its own wastes, based on the recommendations of a committee of experts that determines concentrations of toxic substances that pose a risk to health. "We simply tell the plant that we will shut them down if they don't adapt," explains Council spokesman Moshe Dayan. Council head Giora Meyuhas, addressing an environmental conference in November, said he was confident that "by 2010 practically no odor or air pollution damage will be felt beyond Ramat Hovav's boundaries and that civilian and military activities can take place with no adverse health effects." The construction and the running of the mega army base will clearly generate economic activity in the Negev region. The depressed development towns in the Negev have yet to benefit from Israel's economic booms, and in Beersheba, there are proportionately more people on welfare than anywhere else in the country. "There is no question that the base will contribute economically to the area," states Moshe Justman, Professor of Economics at Ben-Gurion University and Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. "On the macro level it makes a lot of sense economically on both ends. The bases take up lots of space in the center of the country, which is very congested, and will be moved to the Negev where there is plenty of room. The sale of the land that is freed up in the center will more than pay for the relocation to the Negev," adds Justman. "From every point of view this is an excellent location," agrees the Ministry of Interior's Southern District Commissioner Dudu Cohen. "This will create thousands of jobs through outsourcing supplies and services. We've been working hard on this for years." But Brig. Gen. (res) Zvi Fogel, former chief of staff of the Southern Command, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Beersheba in 2003 and was involved in many of the early deliberations regarding the base, is skeptical. "I'm willing to bet you that the fat jobs will go to developers from Tel Aviv, and not locally - even the catering. There will be local subcontractors, but it won't be that significant." "It's true that army contracts often go to those with an in, but I can't imagine cooking meals in Tel Aviv and bringing them all the way down to the Negev," counters Justman. Yet, Fogel, continues, "Who ever heard of developing an area with army bases? In another generation or two, you won't be able to freely tour the Negev. We'll be afraid to step on a land mine, get in the way of a firing range; the areas will be closed to the public. The Negev has such a great tourist potential, but all those places that are supposed to attract tourism will be closed. We're going to lose the desert." Finally, Fogel doubts that thousands of career military personnel will agree to move to the Negev. "Why would they want to move here, what's the advantage?" he asks cynically. "Education is inferior, there's not much culture, and if there isn't work for their wives, they certainly won't move." But Fogel concedes, the choice of the central Negev was inevitable, given the centrality of the military in Israeli society. "Whether this is justified is not even a question," he admits. "There's no choice. Tzrifim [the current site of most of the training bases in central Israel] is sitting on extremely expensive land. The only place there is room to build the base is in the Negev [and] it's most convenient on the Negev Plateau. So there's no choice, and now it's being sold in an attractive package 'developing the Negev.'" Cover story of Issue 24, March 18, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.