Despite Threat to Israel, Ammonia Tank Wins a Reprieve From Closure

Judge says Haifa facility can remain open until city presents its case.

Haifa Chemical's ammonia storage tank in Haifa.
Haifa Chemical's ammonia storage tank in Haifa. Tomer Noyberg

Haifa Chemicals won a delay in emptying out its giant ammonia tank after Haifa District Court Judge Tamar Sharon Natanel suspended Wednesday a temporary injunction from earlier this week ordering it closed.

On Sunday the company was given 10 days to empty the tank, Israel’s only source of the key chemical, prompting some 100 factories to warn they may have to shut down production lines. On Wednesday, Haifa Chemicals appealed the injunction. Natanel said her order would remain in force until Haifa, which had requested the closure, presented its case.

The order means that the city could return to court quickly and restore the original closure deadline, if Natanel is persuaded by the officials’ arguments. She scheduled a new hearing, which both sides are to attend, for February 26.

The city was ordered the original injunction in the wake of a report issued two weeks ago by a senior research chemist Ehud Keinan warning of the risks to the area if the tank, which has a 12,000-ton capacity, were to be damaged or destroyed, releasing noxious fumes into the air.

But ammonia, which imported by ship and stored in the tank, is widely used for freezing and disinfecting in industries ranging from chemicals, agrochemicals and medicine to printing and food manufacturing. Hospitals need it for disinfecting operating theaters and the Israel Defense Forces uses it widely as well.

Although there are substitutes for ammonia, the 10-day deadline set by Haifa Magistrate’s Court Judge Ghada Bsul was said by industry sources this week as insufficient.

In its petition to the court yesterday, Haifa Chemicals argued that the report used faulty data and noted that claims by the city in the past that the tank was insecure had been rejected by the courts, the army’s Home Front Commmand and the National Security Council.

It said the disaster scenario described in the Keinan report represents a “very low probability.”

“The national ammonia terminal has been a part of Haifa Port for 32 years and supplies 100% of the country’s ammonia needs. If it is halted operations at critical defense facilities, such as the reactor core in Dimona, military hospitals, Rafael [Advanced Defense Systems], water purification systems and operations in entire sectors of the Israeli economy” would be affected said Haifa Chemicals’ attorneys Yossi Benkal and Ali Cohen.

They criticized the way the city applied for the injunction and claimed that the report’s authors did not visit the facility or meet with its managers before they wrote their study.