Environment Minister Calls for Probe Into Toxic Negev Blast

Firefighters contain chemical leak in Ramat Hovav industrial zone after factory blast, which hurt three.

Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra called on Monday for an investigation into an explosion earlier in the day at the Makhteshim Chemical Works factory. The blast was caused by a toxic chemical leak and lightly injured three people.

Ezra demanded a report into the incident be submitted within 24 hours.

Firefighting teams successfully contained the leak that occurred shortly before noon on Monday at the factory in the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in the Negev.

The explosion damaged a tank containing organophosphorus compounds used in the production of insecticides, releasing unknown quantities of the chemicals into the air. The cause of the explosion is still unknown.

The substance could cause respiratory problems and nerve damage. Many organophosphates are potent neurotoxins, functioning by inhibiting the action of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in nerve cells. They are one of the most common causes of poisoning worldwide.

Police temporarily closed Route 40, the main road in the area.

Environmental Protection Ministry teams found traces of the dangerous chemicals in Bedouin communities in the surrounding area. Bedouins said that police contacted them and asked them to evacuate the area.

The factory's workers returned to work after they were evacuated to a safe zone to protect them from the toxins.

Green Party Chairman Pe'er Wisner said the explosion is further proof that the Israel Defense Forces should rethink its plannes to build a base near Ramat Hovav. "Barak must act to alter the decision to build the base near Ramat Hovav, and prevent the needless harming of soldiers," he said.

"There was a reaction of chemical agents that got out of control and was skillfully dealt with by the factory's reaction teams and its automated systems," said Ezra. "It's lucky that there were no schoolchildren among the Bedouin. It has been said before that they shouldn't be living in this area."

However, Ezra sees no reason to withdraw his support from the plan to construct a massive IDF base - dubbed Training Base City - in the area. "The situation needs to be calmed... Training Base City and Be'er Sheva are out of the range of territory that was endangered by the disaster," he said.

The state has been trying to resolve the Ramat Hovav environmental problems for some fifteen years, and those problems are delaying the IDF training camp project.

The army would like to build the training camp at Negev Junction, about ten kilometers from the industrial zone, but is waiting for completion of a plan to handle environmental problems.

Resolving the Ramat Hovav environmental problems is largely dependent on the Environment Ministry reaching agreements with the chemical factories regarding the handling of their toxic wastes.

The Ramat Hovav local council is convinced that various measures implemented by the factories have eliminated health risks to constructing the huge training camp.

Air quality data for the proposed camp site indicates that the pollution concentration in the area is in accordance with levels permitted under international standards.

Makhteshim Chemical Works Ltd. is Israel's main producer and exporter of crop protection chemicals.