Several years ago, Nehama Ronen, then the Environment Ministry's director general, tried to explain the lack of progress in rehabilitating the streams in Israel. "It is a complex process," she said. "Even in Europe it took more than 20 years to rehabilitate their rivers."
Ronen was right about Europe, but Israel, unfortunately, does not have giant rivers like the Rhine or Danube. Yet Israel's streams, which often are not more than 20 kilometers long, are still miring in waste and environmental neglect.
Such is the sad story of the Naaman River, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea south of Acre. It is the shortest of five perennial streams in the coastal plain, with a length of only about 11 kilometers. This small area could be a paradise for flora and fauna, and for hikers and vacationers who come to the beach where the river spills into the sea. This area is rich in springs and beautiful sand dunes, with a clear vista of the mountains of the western Galilee, the Gulf of Haifa and the Carmel Mountain range.
But the Naaman continues to serve as the sewage canal of communities in the region and industries like the Miluban factory, a manufacturer of cellulose from cotton fibers, which pumps dark-colored waste called "black liqueur" into the river. The Naaman has become turbid and putrid, and the multitude of water plants and animal life it contained has almost completely disappeared. Residents of the area, as in the case of the Kishon River that flows nearby, have been robbed of the possibility of hiking in the area and enjoying the streams that are within walking or bicycling distance.
In the past, the pumping of waste from factories into the rivers was accepted as standard practice, as an unavoidable price of maintaining employment and industrial progress. Those days are gone and today the court is hearing a lawsuit brought by the Environment Ministry against the Miluban factory for polluting the river; the ministry is demanding that the factory completely halt the flow of waste into the river.
Green organizations such as Zalul have succeeded in raising environmental awareness about the condition of the Naaman and the urgent need to rehabilitate it. A master plan for rehabilitating the river was even approved last year, led by the municipal association for the environmental quality of the western Galilee.
The time has now come to complete this effort and force all those who are still polluting, including factories like Miluban, to stop. Miluban has repeatedly asked the court for more time to enable it to meet the demands set by the Environment Ministry for halting the flow of waste. The company's management has already announced that if it does not receive this time extension, it would be forced to shut down the plant, thus harming a source of employment.
The courts have not completely left the factory without any recourse, but they have not been impressed by the argument that it may have to shut down. Krayot Magistrate's Court Judge Orit Kantor rejected a request from the factory to receive an additional time extension during which it could continue to pump waste into the Naaman. The judge wrote in her decision: "I was not persuaded that halting the flow of waste would result in the immediate closure of the plant. I believe that when the sword is placed at [their] throat, they will indeed find solutions and financial resources that will enable the factory's continued operation without pumping waste into the river."
The water commissioner is the one who is likely to play a decisive role in this matter. The factory petitioned the commissioner to grant it a permit to dump waste into the river. This would be a temporary permit that is issued in certain cases when it can be demonstrated that there is no other alternative for handling the waste and after various actions to purify the waste are undertaken by those responsible for it.
The Water Commission is the body that should have led the battle against river polluters, but it has neglected its duties for many years, enabling factories and local authorities to continue to pollute without exercising its authorities against them. The water commissioner now has an opportunity to show that he is fulfilling his obligation to protect water sources. He should stand up to protect the Naaman River and demand a significant halt to pollution from all sources, including factories, which cannot continue to exist at the expense of harming environmental resources that belong to the entire public.
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