Beit Hakerem Riddled With Highly Toxic Pollutants

Despite findings, Jerusalem approves new construction near old factory site.

On the east side of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, in the valley between the neighborhood and the Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, there lies an open field where the Jerusalem municipality is planning to build a new neighborhood. Only a few walls, remnants of concrete and pieces of fencing attest to the fact that Israel Military Industries once had a large munitions factory there.

In the 14 years since the plant shut down, the neighborhood has changed dramatically. The valley has become Begin Highway, and the neighborhood of Ramat Beit Hakerem was built on the hill above.

Yet two surveys published here for the first time reveal that the land still contains large quantities of pollutants from chemical effluents from the munitions plant, and that the pollution is spreading to the nearby neighborhoods.

For a while, it seemed like the state and the city had overcome the problem. After the plant closed, some 4,500 tons of polluted soil were removed to Ramat Hovav in the Negev. In 2001, the Environmental Protection Ministry confirmed to Israel Military Industries that the ground was clean, and Israel Military Industries said it received all the necessary approvals from the Israel Lands Administration.

It turned out that approval was premature, as a survey in 2003 found toxic gases in the soil.

That did not stop the city from launching its plan to build 240 housing units on the land. Residents, along with the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, opposed the plan.

"The new construction will create a kind of cork, and the gases will seek other ways out," said Sarel Gilshon, one of the leading activists against the project.

In 2005, the neighborhood residents petitioned the Jerusalem District Court against the project, and the court ordered that the planning stop until a comprehensive survey could determine the extent of the pollution.

The Environmental Protection Ministry then carried out two surveys. In 2007, a survey was conducted on soil gases around the former factory and in the adjacent Ramat Beit Hakerem. In 2010, samples were taken of the soil itself. Both surveys revealed that, despite the passage of time and the attempt at cleanup, the ground was still highly polluted.

The 2010 survey revealed the presence of toxic chemicals like cadmium, chrome, zinc, copper and nickel in all four areas sampled. Uri Shalhev, the Environmental Protection Ministry official in charge of polluted soils, said that concentrations were 191 times higher than the threshold limit value - the level at which it is believed a worker can be continually exposed without adverse health effects.

The 2007 survey of soil gases is the most worrisome. Toxic gases were found in 15 of the 18 spots checked; some were 1,000 times the threshold limit value as determined by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The highest level, above Begin Highway, where the factory's sewage line apparently ran, was 2,180 times higher than the allowable level.

Three toxic gases were found in the soil: perchloroethylene (PCE ), trichloroethylene (TCE ) and dichloroethene (DCE ). All three are organic solvents used in the metal industry, and all are highly toxic to both humans and animals.

The company that conducted the tests, Ludan Environmental Technologies, wanted to continue the testing, but the necessary funding was not approved.

Dr. Rafi Mandelbaum, an expert on soil pollution engaged by the residents, said he believes that if the studies had been done more carefully, the results would have been even worse.

"Clearly these values represent a danger to those who live at the site and those who live nearby," he wrote in his report.

Another report, prepared by environmental expert Sarit Caspi-Oron for the Israel Union of Environmental Defense evaluating possible health risks, notes that these dangers run the gamut from headaches to damage to the nervous system to death.

"The three gases are certainly carcinogenic to animals and almost certainly to humans," she wrote.

The 2007 survey also revealed for the first time that there is danger to the existing neighborhood of Ramat Beit Hakerem, where remnants of toxic gases were found in small quantities in the soil.

However, the Jerusalem municipality said there is no way to prove that the toxic gases came from the munitions factory and that other causes must be examined, like fertilizers and pesticides. The military industries has suggested that the gases came from "vehicle repair shops, laundries and other industrial activities in the area."

The authors of the survey wrote that there is "reasonable suspicion" that the pollution came from the military industries plant, "lacking any other source we know of in the surroundings." But they also note that there were few samples taken and that it is unknown exactly how the pollutants spread. In any case, they recommend more testing.

The municipality continued its testing - but not necessarily in Ramat Beit Hakerem; rather, in eight other neighborhoods. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense says the municipality hoped to find similar levels of the gases elsewhere and thus rule out the old munitions plant as the cause.