Pipe dreams

The Acre Municipality is opposing a gas plant it believes will scare off investors.

Travel up north (photo credit: Courtesy)
Travel up north
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Can a city that was chosen as a UNESCO world heritage site – and celebrated for its history – stop a natural gas plant designed for the future from its shores?

That’s the hope of Acre’s Deputy Mayor Israel Ben-Ezra, who has joined forces with local activists to try to remove the former Frutarom factory site, which sits two kilometers south of Acre’s beaches, from the roster of 10 sites being considered by the National Infrastructure Ministry for an on-shore gas receiving facility.

While Ben-Ezra welcomes the news that the natural gas deposits – roughly 128 km. offshore from Haifa, in Israeli territory – could help boost Israel’s budget, he feels that the unique historical character of Acre, as well as its example of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Israel, is too precious to tamper with.

“Investors have already put a hold on numerous projects in Acre because they fear that a gas plant on the shore will drive people away,” Ben-Ezra says.

The ministry has been searching for suitable site on which to build a receiving plant ever since natural gas deposits – estimated to be worth more than $500 billion – were found in the Levant Basin in Israel’s exclusive economic zone.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the basin contains at least 122 trillion cubic meters of recoverable gas. The challenge is determining how the nations – including Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus and Northern Cyprus – will divvy up the booty. According to international maritime law, a country can claim an area within 200 nautical miles of its its territorial waters as its exclusive economic zone. The sea deposits remain in dispute.

The ministry hired Gideon Lerman, an architect and urban planner, to investigate the list of potential sites, including Hadera, Caesarea, Moshav Dor, Petroleum Energy Infrastructures Ltd. (PEI) in Haifa Bay, Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, and the 34-hectare former Frutarom plant, south of Acre.

Since receiving the assignment, Lerman has been traveling up and down the northern coast trying to determine which site best meets the criteria specified by National Outline Plan No. 37 for an on-shore facility. He is using environmental, economic and other factors to form his decision.

Last week he met with Ben-Ezra, who told him emphatically about Acre City Hall’s opposition to the proposed site. After listening to Ben-Ezra’s concerns, Lerman says people around the country are “under the influence of a demonization” of gas plants.

“Everyone is completely afraid because of the image of the gas plant, for no reason at all,” Lerman says.

Lerman, whose company the Lerman Group built the sewage waste treatment center at Ben-Gurion Airport (a building that is aesthetic despite its purpose), charges that unfounded fears do more damage than the actual plant.

Once the plant starts to operate, it won’t be “as bad as people believe,” he says. Lerman also says that down the road, Acre officials will regret not wanting the gas plant because it could help reduce Acre’s taxes and provide other benefits to the city.

Lerman cites the case of Acre city officials being against the railway bridge over the Na’aman River. As an incentive, Israel Railways built an NIS 15 million soccer stadium at the entrance to the city.

Yet Ben-Ezra is not convinced and feels that the gas facility on the shoreline will quash Acre’s development from “the city with untapped potential” to a booming tourist destination.

Under the guidance of the city’s mayor, Shimon Lankri, several new boutique hotels and 35 new clean manufacturing companies have opened.

A more striking issue for Ben-Ezra is that Acre, a city of fragile coexistence, is “the anchor in the Western Galilee.” He says that “coexistence can only exist in a thriving economy, and the gas facility has already driven away investors.”

He points out that The Marker has voted Acre as the best place in Israel for high returns on investments.

As part of its long-range plans, the ministry would like the country to eliminate its use of coal and instead use natural gas. Lerman says that in many other developed countries, houses and factories are hooked up to a national grid of natural gas lines, something that Israel plans to do.

Natural gas is a cleaner energy source, he says, but adds that cities around the country fear what they don’t know. “I don’t know how to tell people not to be afraid,” Lerman says.

However, Lankri visited a gas plant facility in Holland but came away unimpressed. Ben-Ezra says Lankri found the plant was clean, “but Holland doesn’t have Nasrallah.”

Ben-Ezra, referring to Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, points out that during the 2006 Second Lebanese War, Katyusha rockets landed in Acre, killing seven residents and injuring dozens.

Ben-Ezra expresses his concern about the security of its citizens if a gas plant is built so close to where 60,000 people live. He also says that in the past week, there have again been Katyusha rocket attacks on the northern border, approximately 40 km. from the Frutarom property.

Activists in Acre and Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, opposite the Frutarom factory, says that in addition to the security hazards, there are other reasons not to build the gas plant on the Frutarom site. “They can tell you that there won’t be any problems with the factory, but we’re a tiny little country,” states Moshe Chertoff, member of the Central Committee against Gas Factories in Acre Bay. “All it takes is one mistake. The needs of the nation do not supersede the safety of so many citizens.”

He says that the receiving factory will receive gas under pressure to maintain its liquid state. If there is some kind of leak in the pipes or a “truck driver takes the wrong turn,” he says, it would be a disaster.

Chertoff points to the fact that the site is one kilometer from three elementary schools and 700 meters from a brand new soccer stadium.

Tomer Rona, the public relations spokesman for the Central Committee against Gas Factories in Acre Bay, who sat in on the meeting between Ben-Ezra and Lerman, says it was “emotional.” He feels that Lerman heard their concerns, but he worries because one of the other sites being considered for the plant is in the fields of Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, directly across from the Frutarom site. Rona says that there is a documented high rate of cancer and asthma among children on the kibbutz.

“To put another factory in the area where we are already being poisoned would be a crime,” Rona states. The ministry spokeswoman says that no final decision has been made. “In every place we are considering there is opposition,” she says, adding that some kind of receiving plant must be put on-shore.

However, Rona believes that there is a way it can be built totally off-shore, with only a pipe hook-up on land. “We are in favor of building a seabased facility,” Rona says. “Even the smallest two-hectare land-based facility would be dangerous, since very quickly it would grow to 10.5 hectares and there would be no way to stop it. The planners are already speaking about the option of expanding. Storage and recycling facilities will be established and the entire area will become an area for heavy industry.”

Lerman says in response that a seabased facility is “technically possible but extremely problematic.” There is one such rig in Holland – out of 140 – and a few off-shore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet they all have “full back-up if there is a technical problem,” he says.

Doron Korn, project manager of Delek Sea Maagan 2011 Ltd., owner of the Frutarom property, says that it “is another case of ‘NIMBY.’” The Frutarom site was bought by Delek Sea Maagan 2011 Ltd., a company of the Delek Group, last year at the government’s liquidation sale. The site was used until recently by the Frutarom company, which develops flavors and ingredients for customers in the pharmaceutical, fragrance and nutritional markets. It housed numerous research and development labs.

Korn is in charge of cleaning the site, only after which will the company decide what to do with it, he says. He says there is a high amount of contamination, including bromides and asbestos, at the site.

“It will cost at least NIS 60m. to clean up the site and there’s still no saying that it will be ready for tourism and living,” says Korn. He adds that people want to use natural gas but nobody wants the required facilities to be near them. At a meeting in the Delek offices in Netanya, Korn and Silviu Wittinig, chairman of Delek Infrastructures Ltd. – which operates power stations around Israel – say that the land is so polluted it will be unable to be used for the tourism project that the city of Acre envisions.

Wittinig says the gas plant would not be run by his company, which owns the land, but rather by Delek and a consortium of other gas companies, including Texas-based Noble Energy, which recently announced that it is granting Delek the rights to develop the gas deposits at sea. Wittinig says he does not want to build a power station in Acre but rather a clean park with an open college to study energy, as well as a promenade close to the sea.

“I don’t believe him,” says Ben-Ezra, who claims that the Delek Group has not been in contact with any Acre city officials. “They might say they want a clean energy park but they’re still going to put up a gas plant. They might as well say they’re going to plant flowers.” Wittinig says that if the ministry decides it is in the nation’s interest to build a gas plant there, it will expropriate the land and build it.

“The national interest takes precedence over the city’s interest,” says Wittinig. Ben-Ezra contends that the city of Acre’s interest is “the national interest.”