Analysis: Next TA mayor's big challenge is to clear the air

Pollution leads list of environmental concerns that must be addressed in November election.

hadash mk dov henin 248 (photo credit: Knesset Web site)
hadash mk dov henin 248
(photo credit: Knesset Web site)
Now that Hadash MK Dov Henin has expressed his intention to run in the upcoming race for Tel Aviv-Jaffa mayor, the environmental issues which plague the city will surely begin to creep up the agenda. The Tel Aviv resident and veteran environmental activist hopes to win the top spot on the city4all list on Thursday and then go on to run for mayor in November. Henin is just the man to put the city's environmental issues front and center - he has initiated the most environmental bills in the 17th Knesset, is a former head of Life and Environment, the umbrella organization of environmental activist groups in Israel, and the former head of the environmental justice department at Tel Aviv University's law school. The next mayor has his work cut out for him. Topping the list of environmental threats in Tel Aviv has to be air pollution. According to Environmental Protection Ministry statistics, 1,100 Israelis over age 30 die from air pollution-related causes each year. That is 14% of deaths in that age cohort. Some 26,000 children suffer from pulmonary illnesses connected to air pollution as well. The city regularly suffers days of abnormally high levels of tiny particles which represent a clear and present danger to residents' health. The air pollution is a result of a vastly congested, industrial city. Nearly 7,000 residents share each square kilometer in the Tel Aviv district, according to the ministry. The national average is a mere 288 people per square kilometer. The Ayalon Highway cuts through the heart of the city while numerous three and four-lane roads converge and diverge throughout Israel's greatest metropolis. However, over the past five to 10 years, two big projects have been approved that could potentially improve Tel Aviv's air quality. The NTA Metropolitan Mass Transit System Company has been gradually working towards a comprehensive upgrade of Tel Aviv's public transportation. While the first light rail line, the Red Line, is not expected to begin operation until 2013, some of Tel Aviv's mayors have lasted 10 to 15 years, so it could well be within the next mayor's purview to oversee the inauguration and subsequent expansion of the system. In any event, the next mayor must ensure that the project stays on course so that Tel Aviv residents can stop breathing the exhaust fumes of so many private cars. The Ariel Sharon Park (formerly Park Ayalon) could also produce a breath of fresh air. The 8,000 dunam area, the last open area in the metropolitan area according to the park's Web site, is in the process of being built. Once completed, it could provide much needed access to green, open spaces to the residents of the southern neighborhoods and Jaffa. In addition, the park plans include rehabilitating the "Hiriya," one of the country's biggest dumping grounds for decades. The next Tel Aviv mayor must ensure that the project is completed as soon as possible. In addition to air pollution, Tel Aviv is dotted with gas stations, some of which have allowed gas to leak into the ground and water. Surveys by the Environmental Protection Ministry have found films of gas overlaying fresh groundwater. As of July 2008, just five of the over 100 gas stations in the city had moved to Stage II systems which recycle gas fumes emitted during fill-ups and thereby reduce air pollution. The ministry predicts that gas fumes will constitute 14% of air pollution from transportation by 2010. All metropolitan areas produce a vast amount of waste as a result of modern urban living. The obvious solution to that problem is recycling. However, the city recycled just 7% of its waste in 2005 (the latest statistics available). The law mandates that at the very least 25% must be recycled, and of course, an even higher level would be preferable. As a beachfront city, the mayor would also be responsible for excessive sewage dumping into the Mediterranean. Ezer Fischler, deputy director-general of Zalul, a non-government organization which monitors such matters, said that the Shafdan, Israel's largest waste treatment facility, poses the biggest problem to a new mayor. According to Fischler, Shafdan dumps five million cubic meters of sewage into the sea annually. Ten percent of all sewage flowing into the sea comes from the Shafdan, making it the sixth largest polluter of the entire Mediterranean, Fischler told the Post. And responsibility falls directly into the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's lap - the deputy mayor is the head of the Shafdan board. Fischler said that while an alternate solution to the dumping had been proposed, that debate had bogged down. "The mayor must make an immediate decision to stop the Shafdan from dumping into the sea. Along with the keys to the city he gets the Shafdan. The solution is to turn the sludge into compost," Fischler said. Tel Aviv's drinking water is actually pretty good, according to the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED). The rate of irregularities was just 0.1%. However, IUED pointed out that even a few days of bad water could have a major impact on the city's population. More generally, the major environmental groups have banded together to come up with a four-initiative environmental platform they advocate for all municipal candidates. Most of the initiatives overlap with the specific issues above, such as a 15% cut in air pollution, a public transportation system which enables reaching an urban center within 15 minutes without getting in your car, and open, green spaces just a five minute walk away. In addition, the Green Now campaign advocates a 25% annual increase in environmental infrastructure in the poorer neighborhoods. No doubt they will step up the pressure on candidates as the election nears. Finally, lest any mayoral candidate be tempted to adopt environmental principles only upon taking up office, the Council for a Beautiful Israel will be monitoring all the municipal election campaigns across the country for pollution violations. Candidates will have to watch where they put up their campaign posters and where they sticker, lest a volunteer, many of which are legally empowered to issue tickets, catch them in the act.