In Israel, as in other countries, population concentrations live near installations used by the fertilizer industry that pose a potential risk to public safety. One prominent example of this is the ammonia storage tank at Haifa Bay. As far back as two years ago, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor began a project to move the storage tank to the Negev, but the move has been stalled for now.
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The ammonia storage tank belongs to Haifa Chemicals. It can store up to 12,000 tons (a small to moderate quantity in international terms). It is used by other companies in Israel, including Rotem Amfert in the Negev and food companies. There is no doubt that it is vital to Israel’s food industry and production. Most of the ammonia, which is brought to Israel by ship, is used by Haifa Chemicals' nearby installations and its factory in the Negev.
An ammonia leak into the air caused by an explosion or fault in the pipeline could put thousands of people in danger of severe poisoning. Ammonia reacts with moisture in the body’s mucous membranes, producing an alkaline solution that burns the eyes, respiratory system and skin. Of course, the concentration of ammonia in the air determines the level of toxicity.
In the past, various risk assessments were conducted for scenarios in which a large amount of ammonia leaked from the storage tank in Haifa. The worst-case scenarios had a death toll of thousands, with tens of thousands injured, if several thousand tons of ammonia leaked out of the tank. The milder scenarios spoke of hundreds dead.
There are many disagreements among professionals over how safe the storage tank in Haifa is. Haifa Chemicals officials say that the storage tank is reinforced, and the Home Front Command confirmed this in the past. Environmental Protection Ministry officials say that the main risk is not the storage tank itself, but rather the loading point from the sea, in which an unprotected ship rapidly transfers a large amount of the poisonous chemical through a pipe. Over the past two years the ministry has toughened conditions for the storage of ammonia and demanded that the storage tank be given more protection and made capable of withstanding earthquakes.
Two years ago officials of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and the Environmental Protection Ministry looked into alternatives to ammonia production done by specialists. They found that an ammonia production plant could be constructed in the Mishor Rotem region of the Negev, and both ministries began work on the plan. But so far, the state has issued no tender under which land for the plant is allocated. Several entrepreneurs are interested in building such a plant, and evidently they can do so without help from the state budget.
Next week, the National Security Council was to hold a meeting about the future of the ammonia storage tank in Haifa, but the meeting has been postponed for now.
During a visit to the ammonia storage compound in Haifa last week, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz said that moving it to the Negev would be one of his ministry’s major missions. This week, the Zalul Environmental Association, which has been engaged in a long struggle to relocate the storage tank, called on the government to keep its promise and move forward on relocating the tank.