Text size

The government of Israel lined its pockets with plenty of cash last week through the privatization of the Haifa-based Oil Refineries and also ensured handsome revenues for the new controlling shareholders. The calculation of monetary profit has already been made, but another calculation - environmental and health - remains unresolved.

According to environmentalists in the Haifa region, led by the Haifa District Municipal Association for the Environment (HDMAE), Oil Refineries is today the number one polluter in Haifa Bay. The company lags far behind similar facilities in Europe in treating pollutants.

The scope of health ramifications from the pollution generated by Oil Refineries is not known, but it is quite clear that it does not add years to the lives of local residents. Oil Refineries should be required to significantly reduce the pollution - by about 70 percent, according to the association.

The government did not define stringent environmental demands of Oil Refineries as part of the privatization process and made do with conditions which it set itself last year. It thus ignored the need to provide the residents of Haifa with the environmental protection they deserve.

If HDAME's assessments are accurate, Oil Refineries emits large quantities of pollutants into the air, which harm the respiratory system and are liable to increase the prevalence of heart disease. The treatment of this pollution, according to the association's demands, will cost tens of millions of dollars. This is the scope of funding (and sometimes even more) that is demanded of large factories throughout the world, and also in Israel today from facilities like those at Ramat Hovev.

After the region's exposure for many years to industrial pollutants that severely harmed air quality and irrevocably destroyed the Kishon River, the residents of Haifa Bay deserve affirmative action in environmental legislation and regulation. In addition to setting more stringent environmental demands for factories and plants that produce energy and oil products, this affirmative action would mean accelerating the process of linking this region to a natural gas pipeline (which would reduce the emission of pollutants) and maximal and rapid rehabilitation of the Kishon. Besides an investment of money, this would also entail the completion of planning measures to ensure the establishment of natural gas infrastructure and the river's rehabilitation.

Another improvement the residents of the bay deserve is treatment of hazards from the past, which stand like monuments to perpetuate the pollution. In the bay area, there are today two such sites awaiting treatment and continuing to threaten their surroundings. One of them is the abandoned site of Electrochemical Industries south of Acre, where there are still large quantities of hazardous materials.

The second site comprises large piles of refuse from the steel facility near Acre that operated for decades before being dismantled six years ago due to economic difficulties. It is estimated that there are thousands of tons of waste at this site, with huge amounts of hazardous materials including toxic metals like lead and cadmium. The piles of waste emit dust into the environment that contains toxic material, and dangerous materials also seep into the ground and pollute the ground water.

The government already decided five years ago that it would provide a grant of NIS 21 million for evacuating and cleaning the mountain of waste. But this decision has never been implemented. Several environmental associations, led by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, petitioned the High Court of Justice last week to require the state to fulfill its commitments. They argued that all of the bureaucratic hurdles that delayed the treatment of the hazard have already been removed but, nonetheless, not a single gram of waste has been evacuated, and the budgets required for the evacuation have not been transferred.

The fact that these associations are forced to petition the High Court to achieve progress in treating a dangerous hazard is a sad reminder of the fact that in Israel the government demonstrates efficiency and readiness to act in cases involving the privatization of profit-generating assets. But when it comes to fulfilling its promises to prevent the exposure of residents to health hazards, it takes its time and is in no hurry to get anywhere.