One of the major achievements of agriculture and the water system in Israel in the past few years is the extensive use that is being made of purified industrial wastes to irrigate crops. However, this development was sharply offset by the high concentration of salt in the wastes, which caused the salination of ground and groundwater, and created - along with the immediate agricultural benefit - a widespread environmental hazard.
In the past few years, this situation has begun to change. The Environment Ministry succeeded in getting approval for regulations that prohibit the injection of brines into land-based water sources. Factories have begun to divert brines into the sea by means of trucks or directly through pipes.
Data published by the industrial wastes department of the Environment Ministry on the diversion of brines into the sea show that in 1999-2001 there was a 40 percent rise in the amount of brines disposed of in this way. Last year, 125 factories evacuated into the sea 31,000 tons of salt that in the past, mainly through irrigation, would have entered the ground and the groundwater system. The most significant increase (almost 50 percent) came from slaughterhouses, which use a great deal of salt to kosher meat. At the same time, officials in the Environment Ministry admit that there are still many industrial plants and other types of institutions, such as hospitals, that are not adhering to the law and are continuing to pollute the environment by means of the salt in waste products.
Another important achievement has been a reduction in the amount of boron in industrial wastes. Boron is a material that is toxic to agricultural crops even in low concentrations; one of its main sources is laundry detergent. Three years ago, a new industry standard was introduced for laundry detergent, mandating a drastic reduction in boron concentration. The result is already apparent in the form of a decrease in the amount of boron in industrial wastes; by 2008, there is expected to be a 90 percent decrease in boron as compared with 1996.
The success in dealing with these issues proves that it is possible to address effectively problems of environmental pollution from which Israel suffered for years without any sign of improvement.
The basic tools for bringing about such achievements are appropriate legislation, efficient enforcement and cooperation with industry. To date, the Environment Ministry has made only limited use of these means. Instead of taking the legislative route, the ministry preferred to sign a convention for preventing air pollution with the industrialists and then trying to get results by means of cooperation. Instead of a "clean air law" that would set clear norms for the amount of pollutants factories are permitted to eject into the air, the industry created a voluntary agreement, which the factories frequently violate, as shown by spot checks of factory smokestacks carried out by ministry inspectors.
On the basis of the major strides made in decreasing saline and boron content in industrial wastes, government ministries, spearheaded by the Environment Ministry, can now set a few major goals for the coming years and foment a meaningful improvement in the ecological quality of life in Israel.
One goal should be to force the Electric Corporation to honor its promises and move quickly to the use of natural gas at facilities such as Reading Power Station in Tel Aviv. Another goal, which has been implemented in part, is the transition to the use of clean diesel fuel in urban areas. The bus companies started using cleaner diesel fuel last year, resulting in a decrease in the pollution they cause, but more rigorous standards for diesel fuel quality are required, and for other vehicles as well, besides buses. Yet another goal is to bring about complete cessation of the use of pesticides that are hazardous to people and to ecological systems.
Environmental achievements can be measured in a way that is understandable to the public at large, as the German government has shown in recent years. Germany has developed an "environmental index" that calculates the progress being made toward realizing goals set by the government in areas such as the reduction of water and air pollution. The government has set itself a goal, measured by percentage points, for the reduction of water and air pollution by 2010 and it gets points according to its pace in moving toward that goal. In Israel, Environment Minister Tzachi Hanegbi set several quantitative goals in the areas of pollution reduction and waste recycling when he took office. The method of awarding points for progress made could act as pressure on the Environment Ministry to work for additional improvement.
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