Ramat Hasharon, street, house unit
Ramat Hasharon, where prices for sought-after units rose 2.8%. Photo by Ofer Vaknin
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Large-scale pollution, much of it caused by government agencies, is delaying the construction of some 40,000 homes in central Israel and could also delay the move of army bases from the center to the south of the country, according to Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias.

Atias was speaking Tuesday at a conference in Herzliya held by energy companies and focusing on a bill mandating the cleanup of contaminated land. He said these lands were in areas of high demand for housing, and that making them suitable for construction could go a long way toward meeting these demands.

The bill is now in committee for changes, after passed its first reading in the Knesset about six months ago.

The draft law operates on the polluter pays principle. It would create a clean-up fund, whose budget would come from fines imposed by the Environmental Protection Ministry, which is behind the bill, that would pay for cleanups in the event the responsible party cannot be identified or cannot be held responsible.

Most of the contaminated lands were held by government bodies, such as Israel Military Industries sites where serious contamination has been detected.

The bill would create a panel, with representatives from several government ministries, to rank the sites in terms of the urgency of the cleanup operation and allocate funds, from the state budget, for the work.

The Environmental Protection Ministry added a clause to the bill that stipulates that half of the contaminated sites - thousands of dunams - must be cleaned within 10 years and the remainder within 25 years.

"The benefit of this law in terms of health and freeing up land for other purposes will greatly outweigh the cost," Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said at Tuesday's conference.

Atias mentioned two IMI sites as examples of soil contamination. The first is in Ramat Hasharon, and more than 20,000 apartments are planned for the site. An additional 850 homes are planned for the second site, on the border of Tel Aviv and Givatayim.

"The soil has been cleaned at the Tel Aviv site but the contamination spread to the water and the project cannot go forward until this problem is also solved," Atias said.

The Defense Ministry's head of environmental protection, Eitan Aram, told the conference it will cost an estimated NIS 2 billion to clean up contamination caused by the Israel Defense Forces at its bases. He said he feared that if the law passed it would prevent the move of IDF bases from central Israel to the Negev. That is because the work could take a long time and the move is supposed to be funded in part by the sale of the valuable land in the center.

The Israel Manufacturers Association is strongly opposed to the cleanup bill, which it says costs too much and places a heavy financial and bureaucratic burden on manufacturers.

The Finance Ministry says the demand for half the cleanup to be accomplished in a decade is unrealistic: There is no way to determine the total cost and thus to budget the activity, treasury officials say. They also argue that the law gives the Environmental Protection Ministry overly broad powers, allowing it to demand cleanup without taking cost into consideration.

Treasury officials also want a mechanism to supervise the panel's decisions and weight them against economic considerations.

In response, Environmental Protection Ministry Deputy Director General Alona Shefer Caro said much care was taken in formulating the bill and that economic aspects were taken into consideration.