Environmental Protection's Gray Market

Two years ago, the Elcon Recycling Center wastewater treatment plant in Haifa Bay received the approval of the Environmental Protection Ministry to transfer hypersaline waste (fluids that contain unusually high concentrations of salt) to treatment pools in an industrial zone in the Galilee region. The ministry later received data that indicated that Elcon's purification process had failed to rid these brine-like substances of dangerous pollutants. Transport of the hypersaline waste to the Galilee was halted. The ministry now maintains it is taking action to remove this environmental hazard.

Elcon's hypersaline waste affair renewed arguments regarding the handling of hazardous waste. The Environmental Services Company (ESC) that operates the national hazardous waste treatment site at Ramat Hovav, the only site where such waste may be legally disposed, stands on one side of these arguments. The government company bases its objections to the opening of additional treatment sites on the claims that the Environmental Protection Ministry will find it difficult to supervise them. They cite the recent incident at Elcon as an example. Neither the ESC nor the Environmental Protection Ministry provide details on the identity of the parties that conducted investigations of the hypersaline effluents transferred by Elcon to the Galilee.

Parties like Elcon stand on the other side of the argument. They maintain that it is possible to bury less hazardous waste, which they describe as "gray" waste, in additional locations. The Environmental Protection Ministry recently supported this decision and began to approve alternate sites in which to conceal this waste.

Elcon chairman Yitzhak Goren and ESC chairman Ron Komer are former directors of the Environmental Protection Ministry. Each chairman is defending the interests of his own company, but both declare that they are fully committed to protecting the environment.

Israel annually produces 350,000 tons of hazardous waste. Some of the waste is treated and recycled in treatment plants, and more than a third is transported to Ramat Hovav. An unknown amount is illegally disposed of in streams, garbage dumps and sewage systems. The nearly 30 companies that operate in this sphere are permitted to treat waste on site, but they may only dispose of waste in Ramat Hovav. Several plants in Ramat Hovav neutralize waste to make it solid and stable. There is also a landfill site and a waste incinerator operated by Ecosol Israel.

Two years ago, experts in the Environmental Protection Ministry launched a campaign to promote landfill disposal of "gray waste."

Then-environment minister Shalom Simhon opposed the idea. He believed that categorizing different types of waste and establishing an additional method of landfill disposal would hamper the ministry's ability to efficiently supervise hazardous waste treatment, and maintain quality and continuity in the industry and various companies that operate in the market.

But the ministry recently renewed this initiative under the leadership of Dr. Yossi Inbar, the environment ministry's senior deputy director-general for industries.

The ministry drafted guidelines for the establishment of a "low-risk waste disposal site," which calls for more stringent operating conditions than those required in a regular urban waste disposal site, but more lenient standards than those required in Ramat Hovav. The draft also outlines permissible concentrations of a variety of pollutant waste byproducts. Ministry officials say that these guidelines resemble hazardous waste treatment standards in the European Union, and that they would reduce the burden on Ramat Hovav, a relatively small site.

"We are currently formulating a precise definition of gray waste, but, in general, this pertains to situations like polluted soil from gas stations, which contains a concentration of pollutants that does not reach a certain threshold," Inbar reports. "We are working to approve a process like that at the Efeh site in the Negev, which is currently used as landfill for regular waste."

"As soon as you regress and permit private parties to dispose of waste in sites in which there is no meticulous follow-up, you create a risk that the Environmental Protection Ministry cannot supervise those sites," says Dr. Eitan Zilbiger, managing director of the ESC. "In cases in which large volumes of polluted soil are disposed, under ministry supervision, it is reasonable to transfer it to another site to prevent jamming up of our site.

But they can't permit more than 1,500 facilities for that. If that happens, they will discover that dangerous pollutants have arrived at inappropriate sites. Even at our site, where we conduct comprehensive, stringent examinations, we discover waste contained in trucks, which was not reported to us."

Zilbiger notes that the landfill disposal fee at Ramat Hovav is eight times higher than in any other site, thus providing a financial incentive to transfer all types of waste to other areas. "It's true that it isn't optimal and financially efficient for all the waste to come to us," says ESC chair Roni Komer. "But, as a government company, we have more commitment and responsibility than private companies." He says that about half of the gray waste will no longer be sent to Ramat Hovav.

Sacks full of sludge, produced in a process in which effluents are dried, are placed in a long line in the Elcon back-lot every day, ready to be transported to Ramat Hovav. Elcon chairman Yitzhak Goren and the company's CEO and founder Dr. Zvi Elgat are absolutely certain that it would pose no environmental risk to transport this waste to alternate sites, like Efeh in the Negev.

Elgat says that despite the financial damage Elcon sustained as a result of the Environmental Protection Ministry's cancellation of various permits, the waste that it disposed of in Galilee pools did not pose a risk to the environment. "This involved industrial hypersaline effluents that pose significantly less risk than the contents of the pools in Ramat Hovav, and it evaporates in a sealed and isolated pool. I received no request from the ministry to address the hazard that was supposedly created there," he says.

Goren, who joined Elcon after the "brine pool" affair, says his connections to the Environmental Protection Ministry work to the company's benefit. "I understand the ministry's modus operandi and way of thinking, but my status could be a problem because people in the ministry are concerned that if Elcon receives permits, people might say that it is because of me."

Elcon employs various technologies to transform highly toxic waste into purified water used in manufacturing in the plant. The company developed technology to treat high concentrations of organic matter in effluents produced in pharmaceutical plants. They have decided to transform hypersaline effluents into solid salt rather than dispose of them in pools. The resulting salt is, of course, transported to Ramat Hovav. "This treatment plant has come as close as possible to a state in which there are no remaining pollutants after treatment," Goren says. He says Elcon received a permit in principle to dispose of sludge, but because a tender has not been issued to choose a site, the company has not yet disposed of the sludge in an alternate location.

Elgat and Goren say that the ESC's monopoly on the hazardous waste disposal market is the root of the problem. Unlike other companies, the ESC is not required to obtain various permits from the Environmental Protection Ministry because it is the default choice for disposal of all types of waste.

These claims are supported by a report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Ministry two and a half years ago, in which the ministry requested that the Pareto Engineering firm provide recommendations for management of the hazardous waste disposal system. The report, to a ministry committee appointed to address this issue, for which Goren was one of the authors, concluded that legislation clearly favored the ESC and that no producer of waste was forced to obtain permits to use the government company's disposal services.

The company is free to dictate prices and payment conditions because of its status as a monopoly, and to heighten standards for waste absorption. The company clearly paints a different picture in its descriptions of marketing strategies that cater to clientele; these include customer satisfaction surveys, a complete package of environmental services and waste treatment in the company's backyard.