Order to Empty Ammonia Tank Will Disrupt Business, Say Israeli Industry Sources

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Haifa Chemical's ammonia storage tank in HaifaCredit: Tomer Noyberg

Industry sources warned Monday that an injunction ordering Haifa Chemicals to empty a huge tank used to store ammonia within 10 days would force 100 major industrial plants to shut down and complicate operations at the country’s hospitals and even the army.

“There are about 100 companies that don’t know now what they will do,” said one industry source, a day after the Haifa District Court issued the injunction.

“When users need and can’t get ammonia, it’s going to cause uproar throughout the economy,” said another source.

Sources said Haifa Chemicals and many of the biggest users of ammonia would appeal the temporary injunction, which was issued at the request of the Haifa municipality after a report issued two weeks ago by 10 professors and doctors cautioning against the risks to the area posed by the noxious compound stored in the tank. No representatives from Haifa Chemicals attended the hearing.

Ammonia is widely used for freezing and disinfecting in industries such as chemicals, agrochemicals, medicine, printing and food. Hospitals need it for disinfecting operating theaters and the Israel Defense Forces also uses it widely.

But he report’s leading author, University of Haifa Prof. Ehud Keinan, warned last month at a press conference that the tank was at risk of collapse, releasing noxious fumes into the air. “If the tank comes apart, we are talking about 16,000 people dead. If we’re talking about a hit to the ammonia ship – many more,” he said.

The city’s petition to the court asserted that ammonia is not a strategic national asset and warned that there was a chronic risk of leakage when a ship unloads a cargo of ammonia at the port.

Judge Ghada Bsul stated in her decision that she had looked at the report, “and the picture arising from it keeps awake anyone who reads it,” and noted that there were alternatives that make storing ammonia superfluous.

Industry sources said there were, in fact, alternatives to ammonia but making the transition would take about a month – far longer than the 10 days Bsul has allowed, although she left open the possibility of extending the deadline.

Meanwhile, Haifa Chemicals – which had said on Sunday it would respect the decision – said it was beginning to empty the 12,000-ton-capacity tank through normal daily usage, a process a source said would probably take slightly more than 10 days.

Haifa Chemicals, a closely held company controlled by the Canadian brothers Jules and Edmond Trump (no relation to the U.S. president), imports the ammonia and uses about 65% of it for resale to customers. Another 35% is used by the Fertilizers & Chemicals unit of Israel Chemicals.

Haifa Chemicals itself uses the ammonia to produce potassium nitrate fertilizer, a process in which the ammonia becomes nitrogen. Mixed with potassium, it is made into fertilizer.

Sources said Haifa Chemicals was exploring moving production to other sites overseas, which could be a blow to the Israeli economy. The company employs 600 people and has sales of $700 million annually. About 95% of its sales are exports, equal to about 2% of Israel’s total industrial exports.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said Monday that it backed the court’s decision and discounted the problems facing industry.

“There may be a problem supplying ammonia to for use in reducing nitrogen oxide in industry and transportation. [But] the policy of the Environmental Protection Ministry is not to make any concessions to factories due to the fact that in the coming days the tank will continue supplying ammonia. After that, factories will be asked to find substitutes,” it said.

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