Since Israel’s Clean Air Law went into effect 18 months ago, its largest northern city, Haifa, has been on the verge of being declared an official sufferer of air pollution. Yet it now appears that Haifa will be spared this indignity, despite the fact that industrial enterprises regularly keep the city’s skies smoggy.

The law, which took effect in January 2011, obligates the government, local authorities and the industrial sector to take action to reduce and prevent air pollution. If Haifa was classified as officially polluted, the municipality would be required to formulate a well-defined plan with specific measures to reduce pollution levels.

The municipality, however, argues that such a classification would be unfair, because Haifa’s air pollution levels have dropped significantly in recent years. They also say it would stigmatize Haifa.

Originally, The Ministries of Health and Environmental Protection took an opposing view, as did environmental groups. They insisted the Haifa area should be deemed a “region harmed by air pollution,” because they said the city faces a health hazard stemming from the exposure to polluted air.

 Under the Clean Air Law, one of two conditions must exist for a region to be classified as harmed by air pollution: Either high levels of air pollution must be recorded or the Health Ministry must determine that the pollution poses a clear risk to public health. The ministry’s director general, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, and the head of its public health services bureau, Prof. Itamar Grotto, believed that Haifa suffers from pollution, and that an official declaration would be the best way to force local officials to mobilize in order to reduce smog levels.

 They are singing a different tune, however, after receiving a letter from Prof. Shmuel Rishpon, of Haifa’s municipal health office. Rishpon, too, originally supported an official pollution designation, but he changed his position after meeting with municipality officials. In May, Rishpon wrote to Grotto, saying that “in the balance of advantages and disadvantages stemming from a classification of Haifa as a region harmed by air pollution, the disadvantages have more weight.”

Doubtful projects

Rishpon argued that air pollution levels will be reduced significantly in coming years, as a result of changes in vehicle transportation, such as the use of larger public buses and the construction of a road that bypasses the Kriyot townships. He also brought up projects whose feasibility and future implementation remain in doubt, such as a sky cable from Haifa Bay to the Technion. Rishpon noted in his letter that while he previously supported classifying Haifa as a polluted area, he has come to believe that such designation would be unjustified.

The Health Ministry was convinced. The subject of Haifa’s skies, the ministry says, “is being reviewed, with updated data taken into account, by a consulting committee on environmental epidemiology. This committee is comprised of representatives from the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry and leading academics in areas of air pollution and public health. The committee is drawing the conclusion that there is not sufficient data to warrant a sweeping designation placing Haifa on the list of areas that suffer from harmful levels of air pollution.”

Haifa officials insisted this week that “Haifa does not suffer from air pollution caused by industry. Its industry is equipped with state-of-the-art technology that prevents air pollution. Haifa residents can remain calm; proof that there is no cause for panic can be found on Yom Kippur, when there are not cars on the roads, but industrial plants continue to operate. The data collected [on Yom Kippur] show that such industrial work does not pollute the sky.”

The officials do concede, however, that some spaces in the city suffer from bad smells, but insist this does not necessarily point to levels of air pollution that are hazardous to the health.

Dr. Ofer Dressler, who directs the Haifa branch of the union of cities on environmental matters, says that “there has been dramatic environmental improvement in the Haifa region, owing partly to regulation instituted by the Environmental Protection Ministry, and investments undertaken by factories for environmental protection. The current agreement with the health minister is that he will not, for now, issue such an air pollution designation against Haifa, yet Haifa will be required to prepare a plan for reducing air pollution emissions in its transportation network. We will invest about 500,000 NIS in this plan, which is being implemented in cooperation with researchers from the Technion.”