The toxic battle of Haifa

The argument over the cause of high cancer rates in polluted Haifa continues.

Municipal trucks block entrance to factories linked to air pollution.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Municipal trucks block entrance to factories linked to air pollution.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This month, a seven-year-old Haifa resident suffering from cancer filed a NIS 1.15-million lawsuit against the state for negligence and physical damage.
Linoy Susan’s lawsuit is the first one against the Health and Environmental Protection ministries since residents were shaken by a Health Ministry document indicating a higher rate of cancer in children in the Haifa Bay area – where factories and oil refineries dot the coastline – than in the rest of the country. The paper also linked incidents of cancer to air pollution.
The ministry retracted its claim days later, stating that in the bay area there was “an excess morbidity of cancer in general and lung cancer in adults, but there is no evidence of excess cancer morbidity in children.”
However, Susan’s lawsuit is based on medical opinions that benzene, a toxic substance found in the air due to emissions, caused her leukemia.
Her lawyer, Hosam Maroun, has charged that the Environmental Protection Ministry didn’t monitor the air properly, and has accused the ministry of basing its reports on ones the factories themselves conducted.
Speaking to Metro, he says the ministry does not carry out sufficient checks for benzene in the air – something he attributes to a lack of state investment in the ministry.
The Susan family’s actions may inspire other residents of the city to follow suit, since despite the Health Ministry’s rapid and bewildering turnaround regarding its childhood-cancer claim, the document was a wake-up call for many Haifa residents.
Ishai Wolfovitz – whose mother, a senior physician, was diagnosed with leukemia in November – says the letter from the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services director, Prof. Itamar Grotto, kicked him into action.
While they can’t be sure whether his mother’s specific case of leukemia is linked to the air pollution, says Wolfovitz, there are studies that show a link between benzene and leukemia.
“It’s just what ignited me,” he says. “Because I know people are suffering from asthma, chronic lung diseases, lung cancer and more heart attacks in Haifa. That’s for sure – research has proven it.”
Data revealing significantly higher rates of cancer and other diseases in Haifa have been available to the public for a couple of years already, and in 2013, the World Health Organization announced that it had classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. A handful of activists in Haifa have been fighting a daily battle over it, desperate for the issue to receive governmental attention.
Since Grotto’s paper splashed across newspapers, more Haifa residents have taken to the streets, demanding that the government take responsibility for air pollution in the city. Among other things, they are demanding that decision-makers declare the area an air-polluted one, conduct an in-depth, up-to-date epidemiological survey, and stop the expansion of industry – which is set to include a threefold increase in refineries, as well as the construction of a new port and fuel tank farm.
These are issues for which urban planner Dr. Einat Kalisch-Rotem, head of Haifa’s municipal opposition party, says she has been fighting over the past three years.
As the former chairwoman of the Architecture Committee, she filed a petition against the plans to enlarge the refineries.
Having sat in a committee of the Coalition of Public Health, she was among those who pushed for a committee in the Knesset to research the environmental issue in the Haifa Bay area. Knesset Internal Affairs Committee chairwoman Miri Regev established a subcommittee on March 19, 2014, with Hadash MK Dov Henin at its head. Henin has questioned the need for a new port in Haifa and suggested that expanding the existing port might be a better option.
Kalisch-Rotem explains that the expansion of the refineries, the Northern Lands Program for relocating oil tankers, and plans for a new port are all intertwined.
“They need the three projects to enlarge the quantities of oil refined in their area,” she says. “They need storage space for all the oil, which requires a bigger port for the exports. Therefore, they need to enlarge all three projects for it all to run smoothly.”
She argues that “we are ruining our bay, giving it up to the industries instead of to tourism, sailing, water sports.”
Furthermore, she accuses politicians and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav of working to prevent the city from being declared an air-pollution- stricken one – a status that would require the government to invest more money and resources in the problem.
In fact, on May 10 Yahav called for a freeze of the Northern Lands Program, an initiative of the government-owned Petroleum & Energy Infrastructures Ltd. company.
According to the firm, the program involves evacuating the existing oil tanker sites in Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Tivon and the Haifa Port and concentrating them in a new 60-hectare area east of Oil Refineries Ltd. called Northern Lands. This would make room for expansion of infrastructure at the Haifa Port, as well as for thousands of new housing units near the beach.
“We are determined to open a public hearing regarding any construction plan in the Haifa Bay and curb any increase in the production of fuels and chemicals in the bay,” Yahav said. “Haifa is not Israel’s backyard – no more pollutants in the bay!” But Kalisch-Rotem says the mayor has been burying his head in the sand until now, and has called for him to resign.
“Half a year ago, I tried to raise the issue in the city council, and the mayor was recorded saying that there is no problem with the air and that he doesn’t know where we get all the misleading information about the air quality – although some of the data had already been published then. It doesn’t make sense that we and the environmental organizations have investigated more than the mayor in unveiling the truth. His job is to strive to know. I don’t accept ‘I didn’t know.’” FOR HIS part, Yahav says the media has buried the truth and that Haifa’s air is clean. He arrives at a meeting at Haifa’s Dan Carmel Hotel accompanied by city engineer Ariel Waterman and the CEO of the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, Dr. Ofer Dressler, who come armed with reports, graphs and charts to refute the claims against the city regarding pollution rates and subpar monitoring standards.
He and his team say Haifa found itself in the spotlight following the release of Grotto’s paper, which was submitted to the appeals supervisor in the Interior Ministry’s National Planning Administration regarding objections to the expansion of oil refineries in the area. According to Waterman, the purpose of this letter was to get Grotto a better standing on the committee. During that week, Yahav blockaded the city’s polluting factories and signed orders for their closure.
These orders were rescinded a week later when the Health Ministry made a U-turn and said it had been wrong.
“But the press gave this little attention,” says Waterman. “And then they focused on the adults.”
The city officials admit that there are higher rates of cancer in adults in Haifa, but they say that while the city used to be polluted, they have worked hard in recent years to repair this.
“In the ’80s, we were polluted,” admits Yahav. “It’s true. The British established the petrochemical industries here, and they built the port, and they used it in World War II.”
He adds that for 50 years after the Israeli government took over the British ports, the municipalities had no say in their operation, until it eventually decided to share the responsibility. “The government polluted a lot, until it was sold to the private sector, and only then could we impose health regulations together with the Environmental Protection Ministry.”
The Haifa officials say they have worked hard to bring down levels of pollution in the city and have succeeded in doing so by 70 percent, a statistic the Environmental Protection Ministry backs up. The ministry and Dressler’s association also refute claims that they do not meet the standards for monitoring polluting substances in the air.
The ministry says Haifa is the most monitored city in the country, and “even checks more substances than required by the Clean Air Law.”
Dressler says Haifa is the only city in the country that checks 28 substances, and additionally has five monitoring stations that check for benzene.
Nonetheless, the Environmental Protection Ministry states on its website that despite this significant decrease in air pollution, Haifa still ranks first in air-polluting emissions.
But Waterman says that evaluation is based on a report that calculates the total emissions in the municipality area and ignores the distance between the factories and the residential areas. He then points to a second report by the ministry on the quality of air. Waterman says that even though Haifa has the largest concentration of factories, the second report shows the city’s residential area to be much cleaner than those in other cities, because Haifa has reduced pollution by 70%.
“We obliged the factories to improve their pipelines to reduce pollution and leaking,” he says, adding that the main contributor to air pollution today is traffic, which is present in all big cities.
The officials tell me I should be more concerned about returning home to Tel Aviv than about breathing the air in Haifa.
In addition, they claim that the higher rates of cancer in Haifa’s adults are the result of Haifa residents living longer than others.
“And old people get cancer,” the mayor states simply.
NOT ALL of the city’s residents are convinced, however. There is a growing sense of anger in the Haifa area, and a desire for change is in the air.
“When I spoke about the issue two years ago, people didn’t want to hear about it,” says Kalisch-Rotem. “Something has changed today. In just the last two weeks, I received so many emails and phone calls from people who told me they have cancer, and I think that before, they thought it was their own problem, but today they understand that so many people are in the same boat. Something is changing in their awareness.”
Indeed, according to Wolfovitz, “you can’t grow up here without being aware of the environmental issues – it’s a matter of life and death.”
He says that “you can’t really do a lot, because if you think about it, you realize that you live in a place that endangers you. But after the paper was published, we decided that enough was enough and we’re going out to the streets, and we’ll do whatever we can to stop the expansion of the polluting industries.”
He adds that he is trying to make people around him more aware – family, friends, youth movements – and to make it a national issue.
“The story of pollution is something we have been living with a long time,” he says.
“People are busy living. They’re not strong economically, so their biggest effort is just to make a living.”
He admits that if his own mother hadn’t fallen ill with cancer, he’s not certain he would have become active. But he is of the opinion that if everyone bands together, they will garner enough power to make a difference. He says he has felt more action among the locals in recent weeks, and that it has become a citizens’ movement.
“Something is starting to move,” he asserts.
“It’s moving slowly and constantly, not like a boom that dies out.”
He says that while some people direct their anger at industry owners such as the Ofer family – which has holdings in, among other things, Oil Refineries Ltd.
– he believes they are acting according to their rights in a capitalistic economy. The people responsible are the people to whom he pays his taxes, governmental and municipal, he argues.
“I know it’s not easy, because there are many security aspects and also major economic aspects, but I would like to believe that our representatives prioritize their people’s lives and health,” he says. “I feel like this time it was left behind, or put second.”
Yitzhak and Mazal Moshe live in Kiryat Haim, the Haifa suburb closest to the industries.
“We need to go out and shake our dear government so that we will have a better quality of life,” says Yitzhak, who had a lung transplant last June after being diagnosed with severe lung disease.
He was diagnosed with TTP, a disorder of the blood-coagulation system, in 1996.
While he was still on the waiting list for the lung transplant, he was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and told that he had two hours to live. The doctors didn’t think it was worth giving him the transplant, as they didn’t think he would survive, but a combination of good fortune and a persistent wife resulted in their going through with the operation. Now he lives with one lung, taking 60 pills a day, and for a year he lived his life attached to a meterand- a-half-long pipe.
“It’s hard to live with one lung,” he says.
“I mustn’t get sick or be around a lot of people.
I have a cataract from the pills, and it’s hard for me to walk.”
His lifestyle has changed completely, he says.
“I used to sail a lot for work, and now I can’t. I’m 58 and my life is over. Now I just sit at home; I can’t do anything. I shake – I even spill my coffee,” he laments.
He adds that while his doctor can’t say with 100% certainty that his condition is the result of pollution, he does say it could be the cause.
Mazal, who herself has suffered both a heart attack and breast cancer, says she wasn’t told that her own health issues were connected to the air pollution. “But we did a check, and we found that so many of our neighbors have got cancer, many died – so we put two and two together.”
She says she could walk down their small street and point out the homes that have been plagued by cancer – at least six or seven of them, she says.
“I wake up, and I smell the smells from the refineries, and I see the fog, only it’s not real fog,” Yitzhak adds.
“It’s the responsibility of the mayor and the government – the mayor can’t move the refineries on his own,” he continues.
“The key is the money. [The late shipping magnate] Sammy Ofer donated the stadium.”
Confronted with feelings of neglect and mistrust among some of his residents, Yahav states that “we have been doing our utmost in the last few years, and we succeeded in reducing pollution between 70% and 90%, and we should do everything possible to ensure there will be no pollution whatsoever in this area. And I’m doing it, together with the 10 other mayors in this region.”
Dressler, a resident of Kiryat Tivon, 15 km. southeast of Haifa, adds “I’ve lived here all my life, with my children and grandchild, and I’m a professional. I would move if I thought there was a problem. But I know the numbers, and I live in peace with them.”