One can understand Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav’s frustration at having to shoulder all the blame over the past few days for the pollution problems in the Haifa Bay region. But there’s no way to see his attempt on Sunday to block the entrance to polluting factories with trucks as anything other than a public relations effort to improve the municipality’s image.
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The mayor cannot decide on his own to close factories because of a stormy public debate on the health ramifications of pollution. The Haifa Bay plants have valid business licenses and are subject to environmental terms set by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection.
If the plants are violating their business licenses, the municipality can launch a procedure that could result in their closure. In most cases, the plants can appeal such an action in court. Yahav on Sunday did not present any evidence that the plants were violating their licenses, so there is no legal significance to his declaration that he plans to close polluting factories.
A clear example of how complicated it is to implement a closure procedure against an installation the mayor believes is dangerous is the Haifa ammonia reservoir, which belongs to Haifa Chemicals. Yahav has firmly demanded that the facility be closed, yet it continues to operate. The local planning and building committee even refused to give it a building permit, and the plant appealed that decision and the appeal was rejected. The plant then went to the Haifa District Court, which also ruled against giving the tank a building permit. The plant then appealed to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case soon. During all this time, the ammonia facility continued to operate.
Haifa’s mayor does indeed have influence on the planning and building processes in his city, including the granting of building permits and setting conditions for a business license, and he can impose sanctions if these terms are violated. He can, for example, exert his influence on the current planning of industrial and fuel storage facilities in the region. When it comes to their environmental impact, however, his authority is limited because environmental terms and conditions in licenses and permits are generally determined by the Environment Ministry or the municipal association.
The mayor can also promote urban programs with a positive environmental impact through the local planning and building committee. But even in the planning realm, he doesn’t work autonomously; most plans must be approved by the district and national planning commissions, which have more authority than the local committee. Another limitation that relates to Haifa in particular is that in many instances the infrastructure at issue – like the ammonia and fuel storage facilities – are of national importance, since these products are crucial to industry and other sectors. In practice, it’s hard for the mayor to shut down such facilities, even if it emerges that they’ve been violating the legal conditions set for them.
Over the past two years there has been another change that imposes environmental responsibility primarily on the Environment Ministry, and that is the mechanism of emissions permits under the Clean Air Law. Today large facilities, including a large percentage of the factories in Haifa, must apply for an emissions permit, which sets the level of pollutants they can emit. While this is a crucial process for reducing pollution in Haifa, it is almost totally outside the purview of the local authority.