The last of the ammonia in a giant storage tank operated by Haifa Chemicals was removed on Thursday, ending months of legal and technical disputes about its safety, but leaving open the fate of the plant it served.
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“This is an historic day for the 1 million residents of Haifa and its environs. Now we will be able to do something for Haifa Chemicals workers by finding a solution that insures the future at the factory before Rosh Hashana,” said Yaron Mazuz, the deputy environmental affairs minister.
The tank, which was emptied more than two weeks ahead of a deadline imposed by the Supreme Court in early August, still contains ammonia vapors, which workers will burn off under controlled conditions over the next several days.
The company fought a court order to empty the 12,000-ton-capacity tank, which was issued earlier this year after a study warned of the environmental and health dangers that could come from a leak or other damage.
The ammonia, however, is a key ingredient Haifa Chemicals uses to make fertilizer and other products and without it the plant can’t operate. Haifa Chemicals planned to lay off all 400 workers at the plant, but on Tuesday the Haifa Labor Court ordered the dismissal suspended until the end of September.
Until then, management, unions and the Haifa municipality will hold arbitration talks. At the end of September the court will hear union claims that the layoffs are unnecessary, and that there are ways to import ammonia that won’t pose the same risk as the storage tank had done.
Officials are at odds over what that solution should be. Haifa Chemicals, backed by the government, wants to deliver imported ammonia to the plant by pipeline. That would minimize the amount of ammonia in the area and involve the lowest costs, they say.
However, the municipality is so far opposed to it. Unless it shifts its stance, that will leave the company with no choice but to import ammonia using so-called isotanks, which are containers used to transport liquids as bulk cargo on ships.
Meantime, the municipality said on Thursday it would act quickly to raze the tank, which had been built without a proper permit.