The Right to Air - or to a Living

A plan long in the works to transfer polluting factories away from the Haifa Bay has come up against new opposition: industrialists who claim it will cause unemployment.

Arik Mirovsky
TheMarker Correspondent
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Arik Mirovsky
TheMarker Correspondent

Thirteen years ago a festive ceremony was held at Haifa's Nof hotel, welcoming National Master Plan 30 for the future of the South Haifa Bay area. It was not a large plan, covering an area of just 40 square kilometers, 33 of which were on land and the other 7 in the water along the coast. Still, this is one of the most complex and sensitive areas in Israel, from almost every possible planning and environmental aspect. This area includes oil refineries, with all the related petrochemical industry, the city's small airport, the Haifa Port with its various branches, the main transportation arteries to the north of the country, and Israel's most polluted river, the Kishon.

The mood at that event was highly optimistic, and for good reason. The plan called for the gradual transfer of the polluting factories from the heart of Haifa Bay to locations further east, and the establishment of Kishon Park, which would turn the polluted river banks into a green recreation area. The feeling back then was that a remedy had been found for one of the most problematic sites in the country.

There were some, however, who did not share this enthusiasm.

"NMP30 addressed very serious problems, such as air pollution and the pollution of the Kishon River, but also required NIS 75 billion in financing," said Haim Kopelman, the Interior Ministry's representative for the northern region. "NMP30 will not be implemented in the next 15 years."

Still, it is doubtful Kopelman imagined that after 13 years, the plan would still not have been approved.

Since that festive event, the reality on the ground has changed: major traffic arteries have been added, the government compound in Haifa has opened, environmental protection laws are being enforced, although only sporadically, and the area was bombarded with missiles, reminding everyone how essential it is to implement the plan quickly. The various bodies most affected by the plan, however, and particularly Haifa Port and the petrochemicals industries, have repeatedly objected to all the versions of the plan - over 10 of them - and are preventing its approval. The port objected to the transfer of its main operations eastward, while the industrialists claimed that the plan restricted their operations.

"I like to joke and say that in Israel, the higher the number of the plan, the longer it takes to get it approved," says NMP30 architect Prof. Yigal Tzamir. "We started working on this project in 1993, but the work was stopped at the end of the 1990s, when an integrative dangers survey on this area was published, and we had to include its conclusions in the plan. At the end of 2003, we again won the government tender to draft the plan, and we started working again, this time with the cooperation of a committee of representatives of involved parties, and we managed to advance the plan and obtained the approval of the National Planning and Building Council. Even Haifa Port, which was the main objector, adopted the alternatives we proposed, and warmly supports them."

Even though the National Planning and Building Council decided in August 2007 to approve the plan, on its way for final approval by the government it was given to the Regional Planning and Building Committees and affected parties for their comments.

Now it turns out that the No. 2 objector to the plan - the industrialists - are still trying to stymie any progress. Last week the Manufacturers Association filed a sweeping objection to the plan, again based on the many restrictions it places on the petrochemical industry and the oil refinery at its center.

"On the one hand, the plan aims to ensure planning and environmental conditions for the development of the South Haifa Bay for national and metropolitan uses," writes the Manufacturers Association, "but on the other hand, there are no provisions in the plan for promoting development or ways to limit the harm to the plants whose operations will be restricted. To where will those industries be relocated? How will the closure of these essential factories affect the economy? We searched in the plans and did not find any clear answers to these important issues."

Furthermore, the Manufacturers Association claims that behind the fancy words, "arranging the continued operation" of those plants, there are such restrictive conditions that the plants will close altogether.

"This contradicts the 'continued operation,' and seems to completely ignore the national needs, the strategic considerations and the economic and employment needs," continues the association's objection.

Many will argue that the planned restrictions are a proper response to those factories, which for decades have caused soil, water and air pollution, and have invested too little in protecting their production lines, in preventing pollution and repairing the tremendous environmental damage they have already caused. It is also impossible to ignore the high incidence of cancer in the Haifa Bay region, which the general public attributes to the proximity of those plants to densely populated areas. This proximity of the factories to Haifa and the surrounding Krayot suburbs has caused serious image problems for the entire area.

It is a long way, however, from here to the closing of factories with strategic importance. "I do not see the closure of this industry," says Haifa municipal spokesman Tzachi Terano. "Those plants will stay there, but we will demand that they meet the strictest standards of environmental quality and protective measures, so that they can continue operating in the heart of such a densely populated region."

The struggle currently being waged over the future of the ammonia tank at Haifa Chemicals in Haifa Bay illustrates Haifa City Hall's attitude to the whole issue. The city is holding back permits due to building irregularities in the construction of the ammonia tank facility from over 20 years ago, and is refusing to grant the permits until Haifa Chemicals meets the strictest safety and environmental protection standards. The city's position was reinforced by the regional appeals committee, and it is reasonable to assume that the dispute between the city and the plant will find its way to the courts.

As usual in such cases, including the objections to NMP30 and Haifa Chemicals' appeal of the Haifa Municipality's decision concerning the ammonia tank, the industrialists threaten to close plants and fire hundreds of workers. Years ago such threats may have made the city back down, but not anymore. In a meeting concerning the ammonia tank the city's representatives declared they are aware of the ramifications of the city's stance, but believe that the danger to the entire population in the region warrants the relocation of the tank, even at the heavy cost of hundreds of layoffs. The city says it is not going to compromise on the issue of NMP30, either. It seems that even if the industrialists succeed in delaying the final approval of the plan, the Second Lebanon War completely changed the complacent attitude of the various authorities to the environmental dangers of the plants in the area.

As for the ammonia tank, a solution had almost been reached shortly before the war, but it prompted city hall and other parties to demand that Haifa Chemicals install much more sophisticated systems to protect the tank. Tzamir thinks that the government also understands the situation better now, and realizes it is impossible to compromise on the protection and supervision of the plants.

"Even before the [Second Lebanon] War, the plan included a command and control system for the inventories of hazardous substances, but the various parties responsible understood the importance of the need for this system only after the war. The plan will result in major changes in this area," says Tzamir.

Various assessments of the industrialists' objections suggest that they are based on economic considerations. One source says it is unreasonable to impose such restrictions and expensive demands on the industrialists without the state participating in the financing.

The question, then, is when this plan will finally be approved, and if the next war catches the Haifa Bay better protected and safer than the last war.

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