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The Environmental Protection Ministry is expected today to examine the preliminary findings of a probe into a chemical explosion near where the Israel Defense Forces would like to build a huge training complex.

The accident involving hazardous materials in the Negev yesterday lightly injured nine people and prompted environmentalists to protest plans to build the complex.

The incident occurred at noon at a Makhteshim Agan chemical plant at the Ramat Hovav industrial zone. Preliminary investigations by hazardous material units revealed that the cause was overheated organic phosphate deposits stored at the plant - Israel's main producer and exporter of crop protection chemicals. Emergency services evacuated nine workers to the hospital after they had inhaled toxic fumes, which could cause respiratory problems and nerve damage.

Firefighters extinguished the flames within 20 minutes of reaching the scene. Fearing mass poisoning to other workers from the cloud of fumes above the site, emergency workers ordered all employees at the compound to leave. The ministry began monitoring the area, but found no abnormal phosphate concentrations in the air. Factory workers were allowed to return.

The explosion damaged a tank containing organophosphorus compounds for making insecticides, releasing unknown quantities of chemicals into the air. "The government is preparing to build a massive training complex for the Israel Defense Forces just 5 kilometers from Ramat Hovav, but the accident is further proof that the place is dangerous," the Israel Union for Environmental Defense said in a statement after the explosion.

"Decision makers must take that into account for the safety of the soldiers and the people of the Negev."

Green Party Chairman Pe'er Wisner said the explosion was further proof that the IDF should rethink plans for the training complex. "Defense Minister Ehud Barak must act to alter the decision to build the base near Ramat Hovav and avoid needlessly putting soldiers' lives at risk," he said.

Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra instructed the ministry's director general, Yossi Inbar, to investigate the accident's causes and submit his initial findings within 24 hours. Ezra, however, countered the environmentalists' complaints by saying he did not see any reason to reconsider the plan for the IDF complex.

"The city of Be'er Sheva as well as the intended location for the training complex were beyond the risk perimeter, which was only 1.5 kilometers in diameter. There was a reaction of chemical agents that got out of control and was skillfully dealt with by the factory's reaction teams and its automated systems," Ezra said.

"It's lucky that there were no schoolchildren among the Bedouin. It has been said before that they shouldn't be living in this area."

Hours after the explosion, Makhteshim Chemical Works announced in a statement that "the obstruction to production has been dealt with. The company acted according to its protocols and appointed an investigating team. The company is currently working on restoring the reactor to usual capacity."

The army wants to build the training camp at Negev Junction, about 10 kilometers from the industrial zone, but is waiting for a plan to be completed to address environmental problems. The Ramat Hovav local council says steps by the factories have eliminated health risks to building the training camp. Air quality data for the proposed campsite indicates that the pollution concentration in the area is in accordance with levels permitted under international standards.