phosphate mine protest
Members of the action committee against the phosphate mine at its future site in the open desert. Photo by Eli Hershkovitz
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Residents of Arad are accusing a military aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of pressuring Health Ministry officials to drop their opposition to the opening of a phosphate mine near the southern city for an unspecified secret reason.

Nearly 300 residents of Arad and neighboring towns, along with the environmental group Coalition for Public Health, have filed a petition asking the High Court of Justice to order Netanyahu's military secretary, Yohanan Loker, to stop leaning on the health officials.

They are also asking the government to release a report commissioned by the Prime Minister's Office that details the health effects of phosphate mining, which produces radioactive byproducts including uranium and radon.

In a report to the Southern District Planning and Building Committee, physicist Hanoch Kislev wrote that the danger of those byproducts must be taken into account when assessing the risks of phosphate mining.

A Health Ministry report to the committee estimated that the pollution from the mining would cause the deaths of seven people annually.

The ministry says it has appointed an additional expert to investigate the matter and will publicize its decision shortly.

The Prime Minister's Office has refused to respond to the petition.

Many of the petitioners have been involved in a lengthy campaign against the plan by Rotem Amfert Negev, an Israel Chemicals subsidiary that manufactures and markets phosphate rock, phosphoric acids and fertilizers, to open the mine at the Barir field, near Arad and several Bedouin communities. Area residents said the mine would endanger their health.

The petitioners said Loker has been pressuring the Health Ministry to consider additional reports, which stressed a secret reason to open the mine. The ministry was sent a report by Dr. Shmuel Shapira, the deputy director general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, that was classified as secret and was not shown to the professional staff at the ministry.

The petition includes the transcript of a conversation between the petitioners' lawyer, Efy Michaely, and the Health Ministry's director of public health services, Dr. Itamar Grotto, who said he was not aware of the reason for Loker's involvement.

The reason for the military secretary's intervention constitutes a "foreign and irrelevant consideration in the formation of a position regarding the health risk," the petition states.

It states that a private company's consideration of an external factor is "highly questionable" and that any other factor must be weighed against "the dangers to the lives and health of the residents in the area of the mine."

In January, Prime Minister's Office officials kept the Knesset's State Control Committee from debating the opening of the mine. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin asked to postpone the debate after PMO officials spoke to him, and MK Yoel Hasson, who heads the committee, came out in support of the delay after receiving "satisfactory explanations" from various officials. Hasson refused to say what the explanations were or who gave him the explanations.

Rotem Amfert Negev said it was convinced there are no health risks to mining the Barir field, but said it would refrain from mining there "if it turns out in an objective examination that there is such a risk." The company also said thousands of Negev families directly or indirectly made a living from the phosphate industry.

A report released by the United Nations environmental agency last week found that Israel is one of eight of the world's leading countries in phosphate reserves.