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A Finance Ministry proposal to expedite development of Israel's seaports reveals that requirements to reduce environmental damage may be eased.

The Environmental Protection Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have attacked the plan, to be submitted to the cabinet in a few weeks for approval, as a major departure from proper planning procedures.

In order to speed up development of the Ashdod and Haifa ports, the Finance Ministry proposal would establish an interministerial committee to smooth the way toward the plan's approval. One of the team's tasks would be to "restrict environmental demands with significant monetary impact on the projects."

The committee chairman would also be able to limit the ability of representatives of ministries in the planning institutions to support changes in the development plan.

Plans for expansion of the Haifa and Ashdod ports call for the extension of breakwaters and the construction of new container quays. The work would require the quarrying of millions of cubic meters of sand for construction, which could severely damage marine plant and animal life. The extension of the breakwaters could also block the natural flow of sand to beaches.

Israel Ports Development and Assets Company has hired a Danish consulting company that specializes in planning ports, DHI, to submit an environmental impact statement on the expansion of the Haifa port. Based on similar projects elsewhere in the world, DHI is likely to propose various and costly methods to deal with the impact. But if the Finance Ministry's proposal is passed, some of these suggestions might not be implemented.

"This is gross government intervention in decisions of the planning institutions, which decided that an environmental impact statement had to be submitted," said SPNI deputy director general, Nir Papai.

Considering current environmental pressures on the marine environment, including from drilling for oil and gas, such a statement is even more essential, Papai said.

According to legal experts in the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Finance Ministry proposal cannot legally interfere with the authority of the planning institution to decide on the directives for an environmental impact survey.

The Finance Ministry responded that The Trajtenberg Committee stated that the statutory planning of the Haifa and Ashdod ports must be moved ahead, because such planning, "particularly in Haifa, has not progressed satisfactorily in recent years due to various environmental demands." For this reason, the ministry stated, "a proposal is being formulated to expedite the planning of the ports while limiting costs. The proposal includes a number of arrangements, mainly the establishment of a committee to remove obstacles, headed by the director general of the Prime Minister's Office."