Israeli Court Gives Haifa Chemicals 10 Days to Empty Ammonia Tank

Alluding to the life-threatening danger posed by the storage of the noxious substance, judge says picture emerging from experts' report 'keeps awake at night anyone who reads it.'

Haifa Chemical's ammonia storage tank in Haifa.
Tomer Noyberg

A court gave Haifa Chemicals a 10-day deadline on Sunday to empty the city's ammonia tank. 

The Haifa District Court had issued a temporary injunction to close the tank, at the municipality’s request, last week, after a report issued two weeks ago by 10 professors and doctors cautioning against the risks to the bay area posed by the noxious compound stored in the tank.

It would take a number of days to empty the tank. No representatives from Haifa Chemicals attended the hearing at the Haifa court.

The city’s appeal had mentioned the report’s claims that ammonia is not a strategic national asset, that the tank is not properly inspected, that it is liable to collapse at any time and that there is always a risk of leakage when a ship unloads a cargo of ammonia at the port.  

Judge Ghada Bsul stated in her decision that she had looked at the report, “and the picture arising from it keeps awake anyone who reads it.” She added that the report offers alternatives that make storing ammonia in the current tank superfluous. 

The report’s lead author, Prof. Ehud Keinan, warned last month at a press conference that the tank could fall apart at any moment.

“If the tank comes apart, we are talking about 16,000 people dead. If we’re talking about a hit to the ammonia ship – many more,” he said.

Bsul added that she is aware of the complexity of implementing a shutdown, and that it was impossible to complete in one evening. She added that Haifa Chemicals can make use of the ammonia left inside the tank, but that it must be emptied within 10 days.

Bsul criticized the state in her decision, saying, “I don’t agree with the respondent (Haifa Chemicals) in its claim that the data or the only new circumstance is the committee’s report, rather we must add to that the apparent deadlock over the issue of moving the ammonia tank or building a factory for manufacturing ammonia elsewhere, far from a crowded, populated place."

She also said, “we are dealing with a situation for years, with the regulator not acting diligently to find solutions, while a large civilian population was exposed to the dangers of conducting business as usual.”

The court broke out in applause after Bsul finished reading her ruling. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav commented that he welcomed the “court’s brave decision.”

He added “it’s another achievement in a years' long struggle, and we won’t stop until all the ammonia is removed from Haifa Bay.”

The chairman of the Chemicals Pharmaceutical and Environmental Association within the Manufacturers Association of Israel, Dr. Eli Abramov, warned in a message to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“The hurried voices, among them of Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, calling for immediate closure of the ammonia depot without planning and arranging a proper alternative, will lead, in Dr. Abramov’s opinion, to the closure of dozens of manufacturing factories, layoffs of thousands of workers, and all without serious professional and profound consideration.”

MK Tamar Zandberg supported the ruling. “It’s a necessary decision that will save lives,” she said. “The time has come for Israel to take responsibility for this ticking time bomb in the heart of a civilian population, even if it requires a heavy hand with some tycoons.”

MK Yael Cohen-Paran (Zionist Union), chairperson of the Haifa Bay residents caucus, said:

“This is a brave and important decision for Haifa Bay residents who live in serious daily danger. The bay area turned over the years into a ticking time bomb from the point of health and security, while Israel allowed economic interests to lead it along.”

Haifa Chemicals said that “the company will respect the court ruling.”