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The Clean Air Law that the Knesset passed Tuesday is one of its most significant pieces of environmental legislation this term. It mandates strict regulation of polluting industries, and sets penalties of up to two years in prison and hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines for violators.

Even industrialists say they support the law, since it clarifies the clean-air standards for their plants. However, if the Environmental Protection Ministry does not get a significant manpower boost, implementation will be difficult - and the law will have little value.

The law, initiated in the previous Knesset at the behest of the Union for Environmental Defense by former MK Omri Sharon, seeks to bring efficient enforcement and supervision under one roof.

In the current Knesset, work on the law was spearheaded by Knesset Internal Affairs Committee chairman Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) and MK Dov Khenin (Hadash). The Internal Affairs Committee debated the law 17 times.

"I never worked so many hours on one law," Pines-Paz said Tuesday.

The law will require some 150 factories considered major polluters to obtain an emission permit, for a hefty fee. The permit will also allow the Environmental Protection Ministry to monitor and limit the factories' pollution by requiring pollution-reducing measures. Smaller polluters will go through a similar process as part of their business license.

In terms of vehicle pollution, the acting director of the air quality department in the Environmental Protection Ministry, Avi Moshel, says: "The new law will allow us to set standards for vehicle emission and fuels, determine which cars can be imported, and test vehicles, which in the past was mainly done by the transportation and infrastructure ministries."

National monitoring system

The law also requires the government to set up a national system for air-pollution monitoring, to release periodic reports on pollution and to institute a multi-annual plan for combatting air pollution, including objectives for pollution reduction.

Nir Kantor of the Manufacturers Association of Israel says the organization cooperated in creating the Clean Air Law, and supports it.

"It won't be easy, and it's important that we have a timetable that will allow us to prepare. But all in all, it's the right move. We need a planning horizon so we'll know what demands are being made and how to prepare for them," Kantor said.

The law, based on a European directive for air-quality control, requires that factories use the best available technology to prevent air pollution. Some of the larger industries, especially in the Haifa Bay area and Ramat Hovav in the Negev, are already preparing to implement the directive.

Pines-Paz and Khenin wanted to bring the bill to a vote on its second and third readings during the Knesset's winter session, but it encountered major opposition from various government ministries and the cabinet threatened to vote against it.

Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra was a major opponent to the law, arguing that his ministry did not have the manpower to enforce it.

Oil Refineries director general Yashar Ben-Mordechai says the Haifa company has already begun locating and dealing with pollution from non-chimney sources, which include valves and pipes. The bromine compound plant at Ramat Hovav has almost completed a new facility to handle airborne organic compounds.

Moshel says the ministry needs 34 positions to implement the law, but has no pledge that they will be filled. "There are 150 factories waiting for permits to be issued with conditions for handling pollution," Kantor says. "Our concern is that because of human resource problems at the Environmental Protection Ministry, preparing the permits will take a long time, and we will have to either break the law or close the factories."

The director of the Union for Environmental Defense, Tzipi Isser, said that despite the legislative achievement, "the main challenge of implementation by the Environmental Protection Ministry still lies ahead."