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A powerful stench affecting a large area was again present in the center of the Negev last week. Like a natural phenomenon typical of summer, the region was hit by odors originating from materials in the sewage pools of the Ramat Hovav industrial zone, which evaporate under the hot sun. For some years now, the odors have been making life wretched for residents of Be'er Sheva, the nearby kibbutzim, "unrecognized" Bedouin communities and soldiers on army bases.

In addition to large chemical plants, the Ramat Hovav area is also home to the national site for the treatment of hazardous waste material and a facility for incinerating the material. The area, for which a local council bears municipal responsibility, is flourishing economically, creating revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars a year and providing employment for thousands of people. Environmentally, however, Ramat Hovav is one of the major failures of the authorities who are responsible for public health and the protection of the surroundings. The bulk of the responsibility undoubtedly rests with the Environment Ministry, which has not succeeded in protecting the residents and the local environment from the hazards emanating from Ramat Hovav.

It is next to impossible to compile a complete list of all the breakdowns, hitches and near disasters that have occurred at Ramat Hovav over the past 15 years. The industrial waste produced there has seeped into the groundwater through layers of rock that were supposed to be impervious but turned out to be cracked; the contamination has spread across extensive areas and has been carried into the area's creeks by the rains. Five years ago, a fire at the refuse site almost caused a mass disaster, and there have been smaller-scale fires and breakdowns since then, as well.

The treatment of the pools of waste material in the industrial zone has become one long failed experiment, including the establishment of a biological purification facility that did not solve the problem. Before that, a device was installed that sprayed the wastes into the air. Instead of evaporating, however, they fell back to the ground and contaminated it. Surprise visits carried out by Environment Ministry personnel found the industries at Ramat Hovav are continuing to emit pollution at levels exceeding the normative standards. The managers cited temporary breakdowns, but it turns out there is an amazing correlation between the breakdowns and the surprise visits of the ministry's experts.

In light of the many problems at the site, the Environment Ministry and the local council should have taken a tough line with the industrial plants, taken action to repair past damage and, at long last, put forward solutions that would not only be expensive and creative but would also produce results.

There have been some improvements in the past few years, such as better storage of the hazardous wastes and the burning of barrels of materials that were stored improperly. In addition, the local council, with the financing of the industrial plants, repaired the leaking conduit system for the waste products and closed several old sewage pools.

Nevertheless, the stench and air pollution continue, and the damage done to the groundwater system in the past has not been repaired. The Environment Ministry has, so far, made do mainly with holding hearings for the plant managers. The local council has said it will close the pools within two years, but the local residents have good reason to doubt the promises of officials who vowed three years ago that a new facility for biological purification was the answer to the stench problem.

Two years ago, the Environment Ministry awarded the environment minister's shield for environmental protection to one of Ramat Hovav's largest industries, which produces bromide. A few months later, the ministry declared that the same plant was in breach of the terms of its business license.

Environment Minister Yehudit Naot, who recently promised to make the rehabilitation of Ramat Hovav a national project, stated at a conference on national priorities in environmental quality, which was held last week at the Haifa Technion, that the professional personnel in the ministry usually make correct decisions. If those decisions had, in fact, been correct, she would not now have to be begging the government to take an interest in Ramat Hovav, so that it will be possible to repair the damage there at an estimated cost of $100 million.