Electric Co. and Environment Ministry at Loggerheads Projects Delayed in Fight Over Radiation Standards

The cornerstone of Haifa's Carmel Tunnels project was laid last week in an impressive ceremony. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, treasury officials, Haifa's mayor and executives from the developers welcomed the start of the project and the NIS 1.15 billion investment it brings to the city.

However, the 600 workers brought in from China for the project will find themselves with nothing to do unless the electrical arrangements for the giant tunneling equipment are approved.

The tunnel project is not alone. Shari Arison faces a delay in getting the keys to her new, $13 million triplex penthouse in a luxury apartment tower in Tel Aviv, since the building permit has been delayed for similar reasons.

The same goes for the opening of the renovated Blue Bay Hotel in Netanya, the long-awaited Macabit road (Road 471), as well as dozens if not hundreds of other real estate and infrastructure projects around the country.

The delays in billions of shekels' worth of projects are due to a dispute between the Israel Electric Corporation (IEC) and the Ministry for Environmental Protection. Private developers blame the head of the ministry's noise and radiation abatement unit, Dr. Stilian Gelberg, saying he championed a new law that is impossible to implement because it does not include exact standards, which has resulted in the delays.

Dr. Gelberg claims the IEC is doing everything in its power to prevent the implementation of the law and is attempting to impose its own rules.

Last year the Knesset passed a law requiring Environment Ministry approval for the construction or operation of every new device or structure that transmits non-ionizing radiation, beginning on Janaury 1, 2007.

Under the new law, ministry approval is required for the construction of every residential building that requires a transformer station, connections to heavy electrical equipment or the moving of electricity pylons. However, the law does not specify minimum radiation exposure levels, the minimum distance from the equipment and other requirements.

The Environment Ministry was to have determined the standards when the law took effect, but has yet to do so, forcing developers to meet a strict law without knowing its exact requirements. Apparently Dr. Gelberg is the only person in Israel who knows the magic numbers.

"When there are no standards to set maximum exposure or permitted radiation levels we don't know what to expect," Zohar Lavie of the IEC's statutory planning and environmental affairs department said. "The IEC cannot commit itself to unkown radiation levels and expose its employees to criminal charges, so we are refusing to approve electrical work."

Gelberg claims the current situation actually benefits the IEC and charges the company with trying to manufacture a crisis to evade the restrictions mandated by the new law. He said that the law was eight years in the making and that the final version is almost identical to the version requested by the IEC.

"Instead of setting low levels for radiation, we are flexible," Gelberg said. "We did not stipulate a minimum, instead requiring only the signature of responsible professionals who will do everything in their power to reduce exposure to the radiation source. Until now, the IEC has not approached [the ministry] with a single request for a standard, and only in mid-April did it submit a proposal for for reducing exposure," Gelberg said.