Four people sustained light to moderate injuries yesterday evening after a fire broke out at an Agan chemical plant in Ashdod.
All four were taken to Kaplan hospital in Rehovot for treatment.
Only dozens of meters separated the fire in the plant, which manufactures chemicals used primarily for herbicides, from a large reserve of dangerous and flammable substances stored in the building.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.
Environment Ministry officials said that had the flames spread to the herbicides that were stored in large sacks nearby, it could have released the substances, which contain chlorine, into the air, exposing the region's residents to severe respiratory hazards.
Ministry officials and officials from the Ashdod-Yavne Environment Union conducted tests to locate dangerous substances in the air yesterday.
"We found no such substances," said Environment Ministry deputy director-general Dr. Yossi Inbar, who was at the site.
"In this kind of fire most of the substances are destroyed by the flames and spread no further," he said.
Inbar and the ministry's southern region director, Arik Bar Sade, said safety precautions for the Gaza hostilities had helped to prevent a worse incident.
"We asked the plant people to reduce their stocks and separate flammable materials," Bar Sade said.
He said the ministry has been demanding to reduce the quantities of dangerous substances in the plant for some time.
Employees of a nearby plant have been evacuated from the area, and rescue services warned people living in the surrounding areas to stay indoors until further notice.
Entry and exit points to Ashdod, with the exception of those in the southern part of the city, were also closed.
One eyewitness who works at a car-rental service told Channel 10 news, "I went downstairs to get a car and saw fire blazing and then an explosion, literally across the street. I ran away with a man who came to return the car. I saw something that looked like fireworks." Boaz Rakia, a firefighter who arrived at the scene, said the fire was exceptional both in its size and scope.
Agan Chemicals was initially built in an unpopulated area, but Ashdod's northern neighborhoods have grown close to it, as is moshav Nir Galim. It is a relatively small plant, though it houses large quantities of dangerous substances.
Yesterday's fire followed a number of incidents involving dangerous substances in the past year.
Attorney Tzipi Isar-Itzik, the director of the Israel Union for Environment Defense (IUED), said yesterday that the Environment Ministry must issue modern regulations enabling proper management of dangerous substances and chemicals.
The Green Course environmental organization said that Israel does not conduct professional risk surveys, which would enable preparing for and preventing such incidents.
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