A dirt path in the Western Galilee containing asbestos waste.
A dirt path in the Western Galilee containing asbestos waste. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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Yuval Tebol
A warning on a wall that says Danger! Asbestos! Avoid raising dust. Photo by Yuval Tebol

When Orit Reich, then a young mother, returned in 1991 to live in Nahariya, the city where she grew up, she discovered chunks of asbestos in her backyard. When she asked about them, she was told they had been thrown up some time ago by a bulldozer brought in to widen a walkway and left that way.

Reich, who is now 58, knew about asbestos and its health risks. Having grown up in Nahariya, she knew about people who had died after working for years at the asbestos manufacturing plant Eitanit. But she began to realize the problem extended far beyond the factory itself.

How did the asbestos get into a residential backyard in the first place? It was common for workers who lived in the neighborhood to take home bags of asbestos waste, which they mixed with cement and used to reinforce the walkways to their homes, stores and the like, Reich learned.

Having grasped the problem, residents organize to eliminate the asbestos. They received no help from the company, the city or the state, and paid for the work themselves. Eventually, Reich relates, they came to realize it wasn't only the paths in which asbestos had been used. "The entire neighborhood was contaminated," she says, and the same could be said for the city as a whole.

In 1996 Reich established the Association for the Quality of Life and Environment in Nahariya. Its first battle was keeping a playground from going up near an asbestos dump. It was the opening salvo in a war to rid not only Nahariya, but the entire Western Galilee, of the asbestos riddling the area. The cancer-causing substance was used in vast quantities in greenhouses and chicken coops, in schools and in homes.

Hundreds of deaths in the area have been attributed to asbestos-related illness.

"As far as disease levels are concerned, Nahariya is like Chernobyl," Reich claims. "Hundreds of workers at the plant and residents, some of them very young, have gotten sick and died. Many family members of plant workers also became sick, because the workers would come home with clothing contaminated with asbestos fibers. People live in a constant state of anxiety because the cancer caused by asbestos can incubate for 40 years."

Her claims are supported by 2009 figures from the Health Ministry's National Cancer Registrar. The Nahariya area has the second-highest incidence in the world of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that is caused mostly by exposure to asbestos. Experts fear the incidence of the deadly disease in the city will increase in the years to come because of its long incubation period.

The incidence rate of mesothelioma in the Acre region, which includes Nahariya, was 5.72 per 100,000 residents in 2002-2008, compared with 0.55 per 100,000 in the Tel Aviv region.

The company: Who, me?

A year ago area residents received some good news. After years of battling in the Knesset, a law requiring the state to remove the asbestos from the region was passed. The law's most important provision concerned funding: The state and the affected local authorities would pay half the removal costs, with the other half being picked up by the company that had created the problem in the first place.

The law doesn't cite the company's name, but that's no secret. It's Eitanit Construction Products, formerly known as Isasbest, which is owned by the Federmann family. That's the same family that owns the Dan hotel chain, and they are one of Israel's wealthiest.

Eitanit, the only company in Israel to make asbestos products, operated in Nahariya from 1952 until 1997, when the plant was closed. The company remains a going concern. So under the law Eitanit must foot half the bill of the asbestos removal, up to a ceiling of NIS 150 million.

Getting the law passed was not born an easy matter. "I was present at all the Knesset debates on the law. The company attended them all, with a battery of lawyers, lobbyists and representatives of management," says Keren Halperin-Museri, legal counsel for the Israel Union of Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din ). "Five to eight people would sit in a row at the table, and that was just their physical presence."

On the one hand, explains Halperin-Museri, Eitanit argued then and argues now that it shouldn't have to shoulder any responsibility at all. Meanwhile, it haggled with the state over the manner in which it would bear responsibility.

"The state wanted the company to put up money but it preferred to provide labor - to clean up itself," she says. "The state refused and decided to regulate the issue in law."

While the battle raged on, the cleanup began (as Esti Aharonovich and Zafrir Rinat have reported extensively in Haaretz ). It's very expensive and difficult, because asbestos is treated with almost the same caution as radioactive material, says Reich. The cleaners must wear hazmat suits and conduct special measurements. The asbestos is sealed in special bags and transported in special trucks to a special site, she says.

According to Adam Teva V'Din, as the cleanup progresses its importance has become even more clear. Digging exposes more and more of the stuff, much more than initially thought, Halperin-Museri says. "It's in the houses, the public institutions, actually it's everywhere."

Yet the future of the cleanup project is unclear. Eitanit had fought against enactment of the law and lost, but isn't giving up. Some months ago it petitioned the High Court of Justice to void the law, claiming the contamination isn't its fault. The company operated for decades in full compliance with the law, they say: It was the "buyers" (individuals, local authorities and some state agencies ) who bought the asbestos - sometimes through third parties - who made dangerous use of the stuff. The company did not itself disseminate the asbestos or use it in construction projects throughout the north, Eitanit argues.

Through its lawyers, including Pini Rubin, Eitanit also claims that it stopped selling asbestos for use in paving roads (the most hazardous use of all ) more than 30 years ago, and that 15 years have passed since it stopped selling asbestos. By imposing cleanup costs of up to NIS 150 million on the company, it argues, the court is retroactively imposing responsibility on the company that nobody would have imagined under law, before enactment of the new law.

Eitanit attacks the law on two grounds: impairment of intellectual rights because of the "retroactive and arbitrary imposition of a gargantuan charge, unprecedented in legal annals ... without guilt of responsibility ... it did not contaminate"; and impairment of equality, since most of the cost is imposed on Eitanit and is not shared with asbestos importers or users.

Full knowledge

The IUED calls the petition to void the law "scandalous."

"The plant operated for decades explicitly knowing that it was hazardous," claims Halperin-Museri. "At first they thought asbestos was only dangerous at the level of employment, to the workers, but the knowledge that it's also dangerous at the environment level has existed since the 1950s."

She claims Eitanit marketed the stuff throughout the Western Galilee as a low-cost material: "They called on people to use it and explained how," Halperin-Museri claims. "In 1964 the company published an advertisement that started with the words 'waste asbestos' and offered it for 10 agorot per cubic meter. It wrote that the asbestos was suitable to be scattered on dirt roads in the fields, orchards and gardens. Yet at Eitanit they claim they didn't know about and aren't responsible for the use others made of the substance."

Rebutting Eitanit's petition, the IUED brings evidence that Eitanit's owners had known perfectly well about the problems. For instance, the company directed its plant managers in the 1970s to find a site, distant from the town, to bury waste asbestos and told them to make sure the asbestos was removed daily.

Reich feels the law is the state's way to correct an old problem that did not find a solution in court. She praises the determination of the Environmental Protection Ministry in recent years but is frustrated that the state didn't sue Eitanit and Federmann. No amount of money can give the residents back their health but at least they should have been forced to bear responsibility, she argues.

If Eitanit prevails in the High Court the cleanup could stop, to the detriment of the people of Nahariya, the Galilee and all of Israel, warns the IUED in its rebuttal to the petition. It could send polluters the message that, barring an explicit prohibition in law, they may freely engage in hazardous activities, knowingly or not.

IUED executive director Amit Bracha says the resources the company put into fighting the law would have been put to better use helping the people exposed to the hazard.

Why should taxpayers have to pay half the cost of eliminating the ecological disaster the company created?, Reich says. She feels Eitanit came out on top, having to pay only half the costs, and is "spitting in the state's face" to celebrate that victory.

"We know the area will never be absolutely clean of asbestos, because microscopic fibers travel in the air and can reach distances of 10 kilometers," Reich sums up. "But I'd have expected the Federmann family, the owners of the company, to at least accept responsibility and pay for the injustice they did to the residents of the Western Galilee."