State Watchdog: Environmental Ministry Filed 'Misleading' Reports on Pollution Inspections

State comptroller claims ministry ordered numerous surprise inspections, didn’t carry all of them out and issued misleading reports; ministry denies charges

Smog covering the city of Haifa in northern Israel, June 24, 2019
Rami Shllush

Industrial air pollution in Haifa Bay has been diminishing but the area still continues to suffer from grave ecological and environmental problems, according to a new report by the state comptroller.

Moreover, the responsible authority, the Environment Protection Ministry, has not taken appropriate action against local industrial polluters – including the worst offenders, Oil Refineries and its affiliates, outgoing State Comptroller Joseph Shapira asserts. His suggestion: Forming an independent committee that will discuss the future of industry in the bay with an eye to possibly forcing some of the plants to move out.

On one hand, restrictions on industrial emissions has improved air quality in Haifa, to some degree, but the Environment Ministry’s monitoring efforts provide only a partial picture of the state of smog.

One specific air pollutant wasn’t being measured properly – a fact only discovered by chance, thanks to researchers at the local Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Moreover, according to the report, many plants failed to comply with official protocol for measuring their emissions, making it difficult to assess the extent of the pollution they have been causing.

To ascertain the companies’ compliance with the regulations, the ministry is supposed to conduct surprise inspections of their chimneys. But although it reported initiating hundreds of such tests – in fact, notes the state comptroller, few were actually carried out. In other words the ministry was reporting “misleading” information that does not reflect reality, wrote Shapira.

The ministry is especially lax in supervising the Oil Refineries group and enforcing restrictions there, says the report, noting, “The large number of irregularities, problems and violations of the law and of regulations by the Oil Refineries group, which the ministry found, attests to the fact that despite the comptroller’s remarks in the past, the ministry’s activity is still extremely deficient when it comes to using its means of enforcement against that group.”

The Oil Refineries in Haifa Bay, in northern Israel, April 19, 2015.
Rami Shllush

Shapira’s report also addresses the risks ensuing from industrial use of hazardous materials in Haifa Bay. The authorities planning Haifa Port did not consider the broader environmental ramifications of huge amounts of toxic substances being shipped through it. To this day there is no formal master plan that regulates industrial activities or infrastructure at the port, although the government ordered such a document to be prepared some 30 years ago. Moreover, while drawing up the master plan, the authorities involved actually excluded the area of the port itself, which makes it all the harder to assess possible environmental dangers and prepare for them. In any case the plan never received final approval.

In response, Amir Bracha, who has served as executive director of the nonprofit Adam Teva V’Din environmental association since 2010, commented that the state comptroller is merely saying today what the organization has been saying for years.

“The levels of smog in Haifa constitute a health hazard for residents of the city and its surroundings,” said Bracha. “The plan to reduce air pollution is being carried out without an adequate informational basis, with major delays, and without coordination between the relevant ministries.”

For its part, the Environment Ministry response was a rejection of the state comptroller’s declarations about poor enforcement of regulations in Haifa: As of 2014, it stated, almost half its administrative and criminally related activities involving air pollution have targeted the city and its environs, reflecting its focus there.

The ministry added that it determines air-quality standards according to OECD norms, and that Israel’s air monitoring system is considered one of the most advanced in the West. Also, during the four years in which the national plan to reduce smog has been in place, the ministry has installed 47 fixed monitoring devices in the bay area and two mobile ones. More staff will be required to improve enforcement of regulations, it said.

In addition, the ministry dismisses the state comptroller’s claim that certain deficiencies prevented its staff from receiving a reliable and exact understanding of the situation of industrial emissions in the bay area.

“Last year emission-monitoring procedures were updated, to upgrade their quality,” the ministry statement said. “A considerable proportion of the plants didn’t meet the deadline for adopting the latest protocol, after which the ministry stepped up its enforcement activities. Today 34 of the requisite 62 monitoring systems meet the appropriate standard.”

The ministry is dealing with the remaining systems, according to the statement, however, the transition to a new protocol has not prevented its staff from understanding the exact situation of emissions in the Haifa area because intensive sampling was indeed carried out.

Haifa Mayor Einat Kalish Rotem commented that Shapira's report is frightening to read and tough to digest, especially for people who have lost loved ones due to illnesses associated with pollution. Clearly, she said, the offending industries should be removed from the bay area.

"Since this way of conducting things has gone on for years, it is not a matter of oversight or an innocent mistake," said Kalish Rotem, adding that neglect in the city in terms of environmental safety has cost thousands of lives.

One burning problem, the mayor said, involves promotion of local projects that don’t take the bigger picture into account, which is something the comptroller also noted, in calling for “the government to act to approve a single, comprehensive plan for the Haifa Bay area.” That broader view must address a host of environmental and public health issues, Kalish Rotem stressed.

Meanwhile, the city of Haifa is suing the planning authorities over their proposals for Haifa port, claiming that they will harm both municipal and national interests, and lack the requisite broader view of the environmental situation. The mayor said she is waiting to see whether the state comptroller's report will spur the authorities to change their approach, or whether they will continue to “sin against their professional ethics” – and continue to ignore the situation.