Government Approves Proposal to Cut Haifa Bay Air Pollution by Half by 2018

Health Ministry recognized causal link between air pollution and cancer in the northern Israel city earlier this year.

Zafrir Rinat
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Chimneys are seen at an oil refinery plant in the northern city of Haifa, 2013.
Chimneys are seen at an oil refinery plant in the northern city of Haifa, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Zafrir Rinat

At its weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, the government approved a plan to reduce air pollution in the Haifa Bay area up to half by 2018.

The plan was submitted by Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay, together with the ministers of finance, transportation and health. The plan will cost 115 million shekels ($29.2 million), and its main objective will be to reduce air pollution by between 12-50 percent (depending on the type of pollutant) by 2018.

The northern Israeli city has long been troubled by air pollution, with Health Ministry officials recognizing a causal link between air pollution and cancer last April.

The plan has two particularly ambitious goals: First, to reduce the level of particles that penetrate the respiratory system by 50 percent. (These are produced by some industries, but also derive from transportation sources.) The second goal is to make large cuts in volatile organic pollutants, which are emitted mainly by factories and gas stations.

According to the plan, the Environmental Protection Ministry will demand that factories use the most advanced technologies in order to reduce pollutants such as benzene. It will also require gas stations to install systems for preventing the emission of fumes by the end of 2015.

Government ministries will formulate a plan to help finance the conversion of pipes and steam boilers in factories to systems that operate on natural gas instead of diesel (which is a dirtier fuel).

The Transportation Ministry will advance plans for the replacement of polluting vehicles with ones using natural gas, or installing filtering devices for tiny particles that pose respiratory risks. A budget will be allocated for subsidizing particle filters, including on garbage trucks in the Haifa area.

The transportation and environmental protection ministries will operate and support a pioneering project to bring in at least 30 gas-operated municipal buses. This may have far-reaching implications by encouraging other cities to follow suit, creating a greater demand for natural gas. Financial incentives will be offered to taxi drivers to start using electric cars.

Haifa will also be declared a “clean-air zone,” with diesel vehicles barred from entering the city’s roads. This restriction will apply primarily to heavy vehicles such as trucks: these vehicles will instead be able to use the Carmel tunnels under the city at a reduced rate. Recently, the transportation and environment ministries signed an agreement with the Haifa municipality to enact this measure. However, no agreement has yet been reached over the boundaries of the restricted area or the level of emissions above which vehicles will be barred.

Liora Amitai, from the nonprofit Citizens for the Environment, voiced some concern. “The problem is that the plan is based on current levels of pollution, which are unknown to the public. Without knowing these levels, it will be impossible to monitor the implementation of the plan and verify the reduction of current levels of emission. Regarding the clean-air zone, one should remember that it’s not enough to remove vehicles, since pollution in Haifa comes mainly from industry. Nevertheless, we commend Minister Gabbay for his serious attention to the topic, which is of national importance,” Amitai said.

Israel has no experience in implementing a master plan for reducing pollution in an urban area. The Environmental Protection Ministry did try, unsuccessfully, to create a “clean zone” in Tel Aviv. However, this was never implemented, since the Transportation Ministry assessed that bus companies couldn’t handle the restrictions on pollution and worried that public transportation would be affected. The Environmental Protection Ministry hopes the current plan can be implemented after coordination with the Transportation Ministry.

One key test for the new plan will be the transfer of state-owned oil storage tanks from residential Kiryat Haim to an area east of the city’s refineries. Until now, this plan was held up for lack of resources. The plan will be reevaluated, but there’s no commitment to finance it yet in place. These tanks emit volatile agents, and local residents worry about leaks or malfunctions occurring.

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