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Attorney Tomer Yaffe remembers the bad smells that used to waft over to his childhood home from the industrial zone north of Ashdod. Yaffe grew up in Moshav Nir Galim, near the factories' chimneys. Many years later, he and his family returned to live on the moshav. But instead of the rural life they had envisioned, they found that the entire area was shrouded in unpleasant smells. The Environmental Protection Ministry tested the air and found that it also contained poisonous substances.

The residents of Nir Galim point to the Agan Chemical Manufacturers plant, which produces herbicides, as the source of the environmental hazards. The factory, which has been in existence for decades, now belongs to the Agan-Makhteshim company - one of the world's largest producers of pesticides, with an annual turnover of billions of dollars. Yaffe relates that in the past, too, Nir Galim's residents protested about the smells hovering over the moshav, but says the new generation of residents are no longer prepared merely to protest.

The residents recently informed the lawyers of Agan Chemicals that they are planning to launch criminal proceedings against the plant. "The exposure to smells and the level of pollution prevent us from leading a normal life at Nir Galim," Yaffe says. "Sometimes, the wind will blow for hours from the direction of the industrial zone, carrying the bad smells with it. Then it becomes impossible to sit outside."

The stench, however, is not the main problem. Yaffe claims that there is a high incidence of headaches and shortness of breath among the moshav's residents - symptoms he attributes to the exposure to the smells and the air pollution. This assumption was backed up by two environmental affairs experts, whom the residents asked to visit. Both researchers developed bad headaches during the time they were there.

"They were exposed to a strong and unbearable smell, which they identified as emissions connected to pesticides," attorney Orit Merom Albeck, who is representing the residents, wrote in a letter to the Environmental Protection Ministry and to the association of municipalities in the Ashdod region dealing with environmental issues. Merom Albeck demanded that the plant's activities be suspended immediately, until the olfactory and pollutive hazards are dealt with, and that the residents be shown the results of air and pesticide samples.

A few weeks ago, the residents sent a letter to the lawyers of Agan Chemicals, announcing their intention to submit a criminal complaint against the plant and its directors, on the grounds that it damaging the environment. A few days later, a huge blaze broke out at the plant, leaving four workers injured.

In the wake of the fire, Arik Bar Sadeh, who heads the Ministry's southern district office, decided to open a criminal investigation against the plant. In a hearing with factory representatives, Bar Sadeh noted that the fire had been particularly grave, since during the blaze the plant's representatives failed to transfer to the Ministry and the emergency forces information about the type and quantity of materials stored in the burning warehouse, even though this information is necessary to properly handle the burning substances. The ongoing investigation is checking whether the plant may have violated the laws governing water, business licensing, dangerous materials and the prevention of hazards.

Halt to expansion

But the Environmental Protection Ministry's suspicions about the chemicals plant predated the outbreak of the fire. Although in recent years Makhteshim-Agan has made available data showing that the company has invested a lot in addressing environmental problems, the Ministry's measurements in the plant's vicinity and at Nir Galim have revealed several different industrial materials, including methylene chloride.

A solvent, methylene chloride is also used in the production of pesticides. Exposure to high concentrations can cause dizziness, impair the ability to concentrate and cause burns. Animal testing has also shown the substance to be carcinogenic.

In a discussion held some three months ago between various environmental bodies, Bar Sadeh announced that he would not authorize the plant's expansion plans until it solves its environmental problems. He noted at the time that there were many complaints about the plant - both from Ashdod residents and from people living in the Hevel Yavne regional district. A Ministry representative said at the meeting that air quality tests, conducted inside the homes of Nir Galim's residents, had revealed the presence of Aclonifen, a pesticide the plant recently began manufacturing. It was because of this finding that Bar Sadeh refused to allow the continued operation of an experimental program to produce this substance.

Two weeks ago, however, Bar Sadeh presented a slightly different picture of the plant - saying that while it does create problems, it is also trying to solve them. "There were complaints about smells over a prolonged period of time. The tests we carried out point to several sources for the hazards," he said. "At our insistence, the plant will set up a special facility for dealing with the sewage stench, so it will not spread to the surroundings. In addition, it will operate a facility that will prevent contaminating substances from spreading to the environment," he said.

The spokeswoman for Agan-Makhteshim says the plant immediately examines every complaint about smell. "The company employs the most advanced systems and invests a large number of resources into preventing the smell," she said. "These include the establishment of a facility for drying sewage remnants and the purification of the air at facilities for treating sewage."

Responding to the discovery of toxic substances in the air, she said: "We cannot relate specifically to these claims because the findings were not shown to Agan Chemicals. The factory set up and operates an oxidation facility for treating the gases. We invested some NIS 50 million in this facility, one of the most advanced of its kind in the world. Its operation drastically reduces the chance that such substances will be emitted in the environment."

No transparency

There is no doubt that one of the most obvious failures of the plant's managers is their inability to convey to Nir Galim residents a sense that they are genuinely trying to prevent ecological hazards. In Europe, too, similar plants are located close to residential areas, but do not arouse such suspicion - both because the authorities supervise them more closely and due to a greater commitment on the part of those factories to provide information about their activities.

"We feel that there is no transparency and we don't know exactly what goes on at the plant," Yaffe says. "One representative visited the moshav several times after complaints of a stench, mostly claiming that they were not responsible for it." In the past few weeks, there have been attempts to organize a meeting between the plant's managers and the residents of Nir Galim. But if such a meeting fails to produce results, the residents of the moshav plan to continue their struggle via legal means.