Fire department investigators spent Sunday continuing to probe a major fire that broke out in the Haifa Oil Refineries Saturday night, but so far they believe it was an accident.
“The investigation to date shows that a hole was torn in a pipe that passed through the furnace where a substance called xylene is burned,” Dan Hananya, commander of the Haifa district fire department, said this week, referring to a raw material from the benzene family that is used in the plastic industry. “That pipe carries one of the substances that is separated out in the process, and when it leaked into the furnace, the fire broke out.”
The fire started at about 7 P.M. on Saturday in an industrial furnace belonging to Gadiv Petrochemical Industries that is located in the refineries. Dozens of firefighters rushed to the scene. They were particularly worried that the furnace’s towering chimney would collapse, and therefore spent hours cooling it with jets of water. At about midnight, the danger of the chimney collapsing and the fire spreading was deemed to have passed, but firefighters continued cooling the area with water jets for many more hours.
The fire, which could have caused severe environmental damage had it spread, prompted an angry reaction from green organizations.
“The fire that broke out in the Oil Refineries in Haifa Bay is a reminder that the Oil Refineries in particular, and Haifa Bay in general, is a ticking time bomb,” said one group, Megama Yeruka, in a statement. “The irresponsible and dangerous concentration of petrochemical companies in a crowded, populous region like Haifa Bay endangers many residents.”
The organization said that one Haifa resident had called the Environmental Protection Ministry’s hotline to ask exactly where the fire started and what chemicals had leaked into the atmosphere, but the hotline refused to answer.
“Severe exposure to xylene can cause headaches; dizziness; nausea and vomiting; itchiness of the skin, eyes, nose and throat; breathing problems; rapid pulse; and anxiety,” Megama Yeruka said. “Exposure to very high concentrations is liable to lead to unconsciousness or even death.”
Activists in the group wrote to Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz to urge him to reduce the concentration of dangerous and polluting substances around Haifa Bay, and not to allow the Oil Refineries to expand in the Haifa area.
“The plan to expand the Oil Refineries that is being pushed through the regional planning and building committee right now is liable to increase the danger in Haifa Bay,” they wrote. “It’s not necessary to wait for more accidents; residents of the Haifa region have been suffering for years already from air pollution and illness. The decision makers must prevent the next disaster now.”