Black smoke over Ma’aleh Adumim

A more dangerous trade has developed in Ma'aleh Adumim's neighboring Arab villages over the past 12 years: burning trash to extract metal for resale.

Black smoke over Ma’aleh Adumim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Black smoke over Ma’aleh Adumim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Perched on ridges in the Judean Desert, 13 kilometers east of Jerusalem, the town of Ma’aleh Adumim was built on a route linking the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert to Jerusalem – an area considered strategically important to Jerusalem’s defense since ancient times.
Today, Ma’aleh Adumim is the most densely populated of the towns known as West Bank settlements; as of 2010, the population numbered 38,000. Residents enjoy natural beauty on every side, with panoramic views of the Jerusalem Hills and the subtly shifting colors of the desert on every side. A bicycle path winds around the town, giving open-air enthusiasts plenty of opportunity to exercise their legs and lungs. But dense billows of smoke waft over the town daily, polluting the air and threatening residents’ lungs with carcinogenic particles. And it seems that nothing can be done about it.
Neighboring Arab villages E-Tur, Eizariya and Abu Dis have a long tradition of burning wood to make charcoal. A more dangerous trade has developed in the villages over the past 12 years: burning trash to extract metal for resale. Electrical cables, mattresses and tires – much of it scavenged out of the huge garbage dump near Abu Dis – are set on fire twice daily. The wind wafts sheets of black smoke from the burning trash over eastern Ma’aleh Adumim.
“The wind has no boundaries,” says Dr. Nitzan Levi, director general of the Municipal Association for Environmental Quality. “And the smoke is carried by the wind. Burning trash and plastic releases carcinogenic substances into the air – clearly a danger to health. And the pollution also carries substances that don’t have any color or odor but are equally dangerous.”
Levi adds, “As far as I’m concerned, the Environment Ministry is in denial about this. They last tested the air years ago, before the pollution got as strong as it is now and in areas that the smoke doesn’t reach. They can’t say anything because they have no data. They need to bring a mobile station here and check the air quality over time.”
Pressed further, Levi says, “The plain truth is that neither we nor the Environment Ministry nor the Ma’aleh Adumim Municipality have any authority to intervene in the Arab villages. They’re in Areas B and parts of C, which are under the Palestinian Authority.”
Levi suggests that talking to someone willing to liaise with the PA would be a start to a solution. How such communication could be effected is hard to imagine.
“It’s dangerous to even attempt entering there,” observes Levi.
“People call the moked [municipal emergency service] to complain about the smoke, and the moked calls me,” Levi continues, frustration rising in his voice. “I make a note of each complaint. The mayor calls me at least once a week about the pollution; we get together and try to hash out a solution. But I have no authority over the area where the trash is burned.”
He concludes, “We don’t have a solution.”
Barbara Ginsberg made aliya with her family from New York in 1978 and has lived in Ma’aleh Adumim since 1982.
“When we first moved in, we had rock-throwing but not smoke,” she tells The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.
“About 12 years ago, they started burning garbage in E-Tur and Eizariya. It’s gotten worse over the years; and in the past three years, it’s been terrible. The smoke usually starts at about 7 p.m. and occurs again at 4 a.m. People are suffering from asthma. A neighbor moved out because her lungs were bleeding. Another neighbor’s doctor had her do a lung X-ray. When he saw the results, he asked if she smoked, but she’s the kind of person who runs away from smoke. Tell me, how did her lungs get dirty?” she says.
“I wrote to the mayor and to the Health Ministry,” continues Ginsberg. “They say they can’t do anything about it because the smoke comes from Areas B and C, which are under the control of the Palestinian Authority. I spoke to someone at the Environment Ministry. She said that they checked the problem in 2008 and the air was clean. It’s not 2008 anymore, and the problem is serious. The representative I spoke to said that the problem was due to the current political crisis, but the pollution has been here for years, not since last week,” she asserts.
Ginsberg says that the representative asked her how she knew there was pollution.
“I live here,” she says with indignation. “I feel it and see the orange and black smoke. You can even tell what they’re burning by how it smells.”
Ginsberg says that pollution from charcoal-burning was once so powerful that her air conditioning unit pulled charcoal particles into her living room.
“My walls and floor were black,” she recalls. “The air conditioner technician told me I wasn’t the only one; he was visiting many families whose a/c units were clogged with charcoal.”
Part of Ginsberg’s frustration comes from feeling that she’s being given the run-around.
“Nobody answers emails or phone calls. They tell me that the person responsible isn’t in, and they don’t know when she’ll be in. Finally someone at the Environment Ministry broke down and admitted that they can’t do anything for Ma’aleh Adumim,” she says.
Ginsberg, who although retired has a lively activist’s attitude, says that when she has organized meetings to discuss the pollution, neighbors ask her not to talk to the press or make a fuss.
“They’re afraid it’ll make it worse,” she claims. “But how much worse can it get? You go to sleep with the windows open and wake up choking. Coming out of shul on Kol Nidre night, it was like fire going up your nose and into your head.”
Noticing that Ginsberg was sniffling and coughing throughout the interview, I asked if the pollution was the cause.
“Of course it is,” she says. “I’m always coughing, my eyes are always running. It’s allergies from the pollution.”
Another Ma’aleh Adumim resident, Michal Silverberg, says that she’s also developed allergies since the pollution worsened.
“The situation has deteriorated over the past couple of months,” she observes. “I started having really bad allergies. The pollution is definitely affecting my health. I’m considering options of where else to live because I’m sure that the pollution is going to affect my children’s health over the long term.”
“We’ve lived here for 12 years,” she adds. “We love it here. It’s a beautiful town, and so safe, you can walk everywhere at night. We’re all happy here. There are lots of Anglos and a great community. But I can see that smoke coming from the Arab villages every day. I have to close all the windows, it really stinks. Sometimes I’ve had to pull my kids out of the playground and run home with them to escape the smoke when it comes.”
Echoing Ginsberg’s complaints, Silverberg says, “I’ve called the moked. I’m always met with this response: ‘It’s coming from the Arab villages, and we can’t do anything about it.’ I wrote to the mayor a couple of days ago; no answer. Then I spoke to the deputy mayor; he said that the air had been tested and it was OK. But if you see that the sky is black, and you smell it, how can it not be there?” In response to the Post’s email inquiry about the pollution, the Environment Ministry replied that the Ma’aleh Adumim police force, working with security units from the Binyamin area, have prevented a number of trucks laden with trash from entering the villages in question.
The trash was apparently meant to be burnt. Confiscation of the trucks will hopefully deter any future operations of that nature.
It seems that the only sustainable plan to reduce the pollution over Ma’aleh Adumim is deterrence.