Environmentalists were outraged on Thursday over the Health Ministry's decision that Haifa should not, after all, be declared an "area suffering from air pollution," terming it "bizarre" and "a sorry joke."

The ministry's decision not to declare Haifa polluted under the Clean Air Law, first published in Haaretz on Thursday, came after Prof. Shmuel Rishpon of Haifa's municipal health office, who originally supported an official pollution designation, changed his position after meeting with municipal officials.

"In weighing the advantages and disadvantages stemming from a classification of Haifa as an area suffering from air pollution, the disadvantages have more weight," he wrote.

Roni Piso, chairman of the Coalition for Public Health, slammed both the health and environmental protection ministries for their "zigzag."

"Less than a year ago, the data proved air pollution levels were a health hazard to the population," he wrote. "But then, the ministries and the Haifa municipality understood that such a declaration would harm their image. The local anti-pollution enforcement authorities blame their incompetence on lack of money and manpower. The declaration would have solved that problem: Funding would have been made available to transform Haifa into an area with a healthier environment."

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), who promoted the Clean Air Law in his capacity as chairman of a joint panel of the Knesset's health and environment committees, had hoped to see an official designation of both Haifa and Tel Aviv as polluted. Numerous discussions about the pollution rate around Haifa Bay were held over the past three years, he noted, "and the picture was gloomy and worrying."

Khenin acknowledged that progress has been made, but said the municipality's claim that no connection has been found between pollution levels and diseases in the Haifa area was "bizarre."

"The data shows higher illness rates in the Haifa region than in other regions," he said. "Claiming that there is no connection is tantamount to claiming that sick people just tend to live in Haifa."

Khenin also underlined the practical importance of the declaration, which is supposed to prompt an allocation of resources "to tackle the problem, instead of denying it."

A representative of the Green Party on Haifa's city council termed the decision to spare Haifa the declaration, in contrast to Tel Aviv and possibly Jerusalem, a "sorry joke."

"Seventy percent of the area's air pollution is from industrial plants," added councilman Shmuel Gelbhart. "But the municipality prefers to fight transportation pollution, while the petrochemical industry remains an untouched sacred cow."