Two employees died and two others were in a critical condition last night following a gas leak in a facility operated by Oil Refineries Limited in the Haifa Bay area. Another individual suffered light injuries. The casualties, whose ages range from 30 to 50, lost consciousness as a result of inhalation.
An initial investigation revealed that the source of the leak was a technical malfunction in the gas system inside the refinery torch. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the accident occurred as a result of leaking hydrogen sulfide, a flammable and poisonous gas used in the oil refining processing.
A Magen David Adom rescue crew arrived at the scene and administered CPR to the victims. According to Ofer Ya'akov, a spokesman for MDA in the Haifa region, four victims were evacuated in serious condition to the emergency room at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
Environmental Protection Ministry officials arrived at the scene to begin investigation the underlying causes of the accident and ensure that there was no danger of further leakage of the poisonous gas. Initially there were fears that a fire would erupt, but technicians later said they had rectified the initial problem and there was no danger of a fire igniting.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said yesterday that investigators are trying to determine whether the injuries were brought on after workers removed their protective gas masks. Erdan added that the police will probe the matter.
Police who arrived at the scene began directing traffic after gridlock ensued. Once they were assured there was no danger of a fire, officers began to clear the gridlock and traffic was brought back to normal. Police also announced that they had opened an investigation of their own in conjunction with the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry.
"This is not an environmental incident, but rather a work accident that was caused by negligence," said Shlomo Katz, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry's Haifa district office. "There is no doubt that this was an isolated incident that would not have any impact on the immediate surroundings and environment. The work was not carried out according to guidelines. If they had worked as required and with a closed protective system, this would not have happened."
Katz said that the factory is responsible for supervising work regulations. He said that some of those injured may have inhaled the gas after trying to help their co-workers.
A representative of Green Course, an environmental NGO, said that yesterday's accident "proves that oil refineries are not to be trusted when it comes to installing a hydrogen cracking facility, which is designed to increase the company's profits at the expense of public safety. Thus far the refineries have not proven themselves when it comes to adhering to pollution standards, as they promised to do four years ago. We call on the Environmental Protection Ministry to prevent Oil Refineries Ltd. from expanding until they prove that they are deserving of this."
"This is a sad reminder of the risk to close to 1 million residents living in the vicinity of Haifa Bay, where on the other side of the bay is an entire industry that possesses large amounts of dangerous materials," said Ronit Fiso, an environmental activist.
"The refineries plan on expanding their activities and to our mind this is a mistake that will only increase the risk," she said. "We call on the Environmental Protection Ministry and Haifa municipality to act determinedly against the factories in order to prevent incidents that will endanger the public in Haifa."
A spokesman for the company said that the refinery facilities had been shut down in recent days to allow for maintenance activities. The spokesman said that a number of workers carried out numerous tasks near a container that held gas, and they were injured as a result of circumstances that are still unclear.
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