Five years ago, during a period of tension in the Gulf and worry about a chemical threat, a festive ceremony was held in Tel Aviv for the signing of a compact between industrialists and the Environment Ministry to prevent air pollution, a document meant to express the commitment to deal with environmental problems.
To the astonishment of the industrialists, then-Environment Minister Rafael Eitan opened his speech by saying he didn't know why everyone was worried by Iraqi chemical weapons when Israeli residents were already exposed to dangerous chemicals expelled from local factories. He mumbled a correction after staffers sent a note to the lectern saying the situation in Israel was not that bad.
But the past few weeks has shown there was no small measure of truth to what Eitan had to say that day, and for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, Israelis were required to stay home for fear of exposure to dangerous chemical materials.
First, there were the failures at the Oil Refineries in Haifa. Residents were asked to limit their activity in the open air. This month saw two breakdowns at Electrochemical Industries, south of Acre, and during the second breakdown, residents were told to stay at home. One reason is that the factory uses vinyl chloride, a chemical that can cause cancer even when released in small concentrations.
In addition, there were recent breakdowns at the Ramat Hovav incinerator for dangerous substances, and a year ago a major fire broke out at Haifa Chemicals. According to the Environment Ministry, Electrochemical Industries experienced two other incidents involving dangerous materials in the last two months.
In recent years, factories in Israel have been reporting large investments in safety equipment, as well as air pollution prevention mechanisms and devices. It can be argued that these investments cannot absolutely prevent breakdowns and the fact is that there are failures in countries where safety and environmental rules are much more strict. Two years ago, 29 people were killed in France as a result of an explosion at a fertilizer plant, and four years ago, Japan saw a breakdown at a nuclear plant.
However, there is a worrisome aggregation of various kinds of breakdowns in Israel, leading to the conclusion that not enough has been done, as well as the existence of companies that might be having difficulties dealing with the environmental problems because of financial problems.
Particularly worrisome is the enormous concentration of plants that use dangerous materials near population centers. Recently, the National Safety Center at Haifa University conducted a survey identifying factories in Israel that use dangerous substances, examining 787 such plants. The Haifa and Tel Aviv metropolitan areas have 45 percent of those factories and 116 are located within 500 meters of the Coastal Tel Aviv-Haifa Highway and Highway 4, the old Tel Aviv-Haifa road.
The ministry announced it would take aggressive action against factories where there are violations of regulations and code. Such declarations should be backed up by closing problematic facilities or starting legal proceedings against managers of factories where safety regulations are not implemented. Heavy fines should be levied against enterprises that, in many cases, are owned and operated by enormously profitable companies that could invest in the safety measures and the anti-pollution devices.
Closing plants, with the loss of jobs involved, is the most painful and extreme measure. But, in some cases, there may not be a choice. This is not the demand of radical Green groups or panicky residents neighboring the plants. According to Environment Ministry professionals, most of the factories can remain where they are, while improving their safety measures. But there are 10-20 factories, especially in the Tel Aviv and Haifa areas, which must be shut down and moved.
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