How much should the polluter pay?
The Environmental Protection Ministry has started imposing stiff fines on companies that contaminate.
Last week the Environmental Protection Ministry set a record for issuing environment-related fines: It notified Tnuva that the company would be fined NIS 15 million for violations of the Prevention of Sea Pollution law. An administrative procedure was used to impose a fine that is seven times higher than the previous record and 10 times higher than the highest court-imposed fine to date.
According to the ministry, Tnuva's plant in Be'er Tuvia did not uphold the requirements of the permit it was given to transfer brine to a special facility at the Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant ("Shafdan" ), and from there to the sea. Tnuva did not invest in the best technology to reduce the contamination, as the ministry required it to do. The large fine is meant to implement the principle of "the polluter pays," an important pillar of environmental protection policy that serves as a major deterrent against pollution. However, it also raises several questions regarding the ministry's use of financial tools.
Much of the fine was imposed based on violations such as late submission of a report and failure to submit a detailed work plan. As for the most obvious environmentally significant section - deviation from the permissible level of pollutants that can be discharged into the sea - the ministry chose to be lenient and treat two violations as one, and thus spared Tnuva an additional NIS 2.5 million fine. The size of the fine was determined based on Tnuva's overall turnover. The explanation of the financial sanction does not set out or define the environmental damage caused and how serious it is.
Even when reviewing another case of financial sanctions, it is hard to ascertain what damage the polluter is paying for. This involved a fine of NIS 3.6 million imposed around a year and a half ago on Yehuda Steel, which manufactures and recycles metals and discharges waste and sewage into the sea. The sanction, which was eventually reduced to NIS 2.1 million, was imposed because of the failure to submit monthly reports and conduct lab tests. There was also a fine of no less than NIS 1.2 million for "failure to submit a report on a newspaper ad announcing the company's receipt of a permit to discharge waste into the sea."
The Be'er Tuvia plant manufactures savory cheeses, among other things, and therefore its waste contains a high concentration of salts. Professionals in the field argue that the company did not find a proven technology for treating the waste, as the Environmental Protection Ministry demanded. Ministry officials reject this claim.
According to the Water Authority, the plant even indirectly helped prevent sea pollution. "It carried out activities that made it possible to reduce the salinity of the waste, and then treat it and make it usable for agricultural irrigation, instead of pouring it into the sea," says Danny Greenwald, the supervisor of pollution monitoring at the Water Authority. "This prevented damage to the soil and groundwater that high-salinity waste might have caused."
It is important to note that apart from the waste Greenwald refers to, other waste was sent to the brine treatment facility.
Still remaining, however, is the basic question of how and when the Environmental Protection Ministry should use the powerful financial tool known as "economic sanction." "The idea of a sanction instead of a criminal proceeding is in principle correct," says Arie Neiger, an attorney who represents the Manufacturers Association of Israel. "But it's like a dinosaur that has hatched and is uncontrollable. The sums are frighteningly high and out of proportion to the environmental damage caused. There are plants that caused severe pollution and in court proceedings were fined NIS 800,000. In contrast, a plant that had a minor violation was fined over NIS 1 million. There should be some correlation between the punishment and the environmental damage. This is the right way to manage policy."
The fines are forwarded to a sea pollution prevention fund the ministry oversees, and helps fund its sea protection efforts. The OECD warned in its report on the status of the environment in Israel released around four months ago that transferring the money from fines to the Environmental Protection Ministry, and not to the state budget, may create an inappropriate incentive to impose fines in order to fill the ministry's coffers.
However, it could also be argued that without imposing such high fines, it would not be possible to compel large industrial facilities such as those in Ramat Hovav or Haifa Bay to build state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants or force companies such as Tnuva to prevent sea pollution.
Environmental Protection Ministry officials explained that the brines contained organic substances that pollute the sea and can also cause phenomena such as the spread of seaweeds that affect water quality. "The amount of the sanction is based on the company's turnover in order to deter companies from ignoring environmental requirements," the ministry noted this week. "We will continue to verify that companies invest in plant upgrades to protect the environment and water sources."
According to ministry experts, if a plant does not report on is operations, it is not possible to monitor it and ensure that it is indeed working to reducing the pollutants it discharges into the sea. Therefore it should be aware that it will be handed a stiff financial penalty. Often this effects an almost immediate change in its operations.