IDF Kept Reservists on Call for Possible Strike on Ammonia Tank in Haifa Bay

The Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command kept reservists on call during the fighting in Lebanon to deal with a possible missile strike on Haifa Chemicals' ammonia tank in Haifa Bay.

Should the tank suffer a direct hit, a poisonous ammonia cloud could move toward Kiryat Haim and endanger everyone within a 5.5 kilometer radius of the tank. The reservists, who said they were told that some 30,000 people would be in danger, were trained to deal with such a scenario.

But one reservist, Bar Hefetz, asked how 80 to 100 soldiers could deal with an event affecting some 30,000 people: "There's no doubt that this is too few. From the exercises we did, we saw that we were capable of dealing with about three streets. Three companies are trained for this, but at any given moment, only one was called up."

Moreover, an Israel Air Force base and technical school near the tank were almost completely evacuated during the war, aside from essential personnel, and the Home Front Command's rescue squad was stationed in the school instead. Guards at Haifa's airport, and some at Haifa Port, were given gas masks and special equipment to protect them from an ammonia leak.

In last Friday's magazine, Haaretz reported that a few months before the war began, GOC Home Front Command Yitzhak Gershon overturned a decision by HFC professionals, who had ruled that the ammonia tank did not meet the command's protection standards and that therefore, during a war, its level contents had to be reduced to a level that would not threaten the population. In practice, the tank's level was reduced during the fighting, but very slowly.

The reservists were trained to operate only in the "tepid zone," meaning places more than a few hundred meters from the tank. The area inside that radius, the "hot zone," consists mainly of industrial buildings, but also includes the IAF base and Haifa Port.

During their training, the reservists were told that emptying the tank, via ships or tankers, would be more dangerous than leaving it filled.

Hefetz said that the reservists were trained "to enter territory affected by such materials and treat people. We have no equipment or ability to try to block [the spread] or cope with the explosion - only with the people."

Ammonia, he explained, causes breathing problems and disorientation even if the concentration is not high enough to kill - which it could be. Therefore, "the idea is to try to push [people] in the right direction so that they'll get out of the area of the cloud."

The IDF Spokesman said in response: "To eliminate all risk, even the slightest, the GOC Home Front Command ordered the stationing of dedicated forces capable of dealing with an incident involving hazardous materials. The force practiced reaching the relevant places quickly and helping the first response teams. It certainly did not train to evacuate the population, since no scenario foresaw danger to [the population]."