Criminal Wrongdoing Suspected in Haifa Refinery Fire

The Environmental Protection Ministry says officials at Oil Refineries Ltd. might have been negligent.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fuel tank on fire at Oil Refineries Ltd. in Haifa, December 25, 2016.
Rami Shllush

The Environmental Protection Ministry said Monday there were grounds for suspecting criminal wrongdoing in the fire at the Haifa Bay refineries a week ago.

According to the ministry, a criminal investigation will soon be opened; the evidence so far points to “several suspected environmental violations by officials at the refinery, before and during the fire.”

One source familiar with the matter says workers noticed a defective storage tank the day before the blaze, with oil accumulating on the roof. Workers started emptying the tank but on Sunday December 25, the day the fire broke out, there was still oil on the roof, even though the storage tank was almost empty.

The workers improvised by moving water through pipes meant to conduct fire retardant; the goal was to push the oil back into the tank. However, a spark due to static electricity or friction set the fuel on the roof on fire.

After two hours, firefighters had the blaze partly under control before it flared up again. Firefighters later said that figures they had received on the amount of oil in the tank were inaccurate. During the conflagration several roads in the area were closed and residents were told to stay indoors.

Two months ago the Environmental Protection Ministry held a hearing for Carmel Olefins, part of Oil Refineries Ltd., due to violations of emission levels. Black smoke was spewing from a plant’s smokestacks but company officials allegedly did not provide complete information on the problem and did not adhere to standards for examining its smokestacks. The results of the hearing have not yet been published.

Referring to the fire, the Haifa municipality said Oil Refineries must “fully account for this great mishap that endangered 1 million residents in the area. We expect a thorough investigation and call for a stop to the refineries’ expansion. Now is the time for an immediate curtailing of petrochemical activity in the Haifa Bay area, and for the oil and ammonia storage tanks there to be removed.”

For its part, Oil Refineries said that “the group operates according to all regulations and standards that bind it, ones among the strictest in the West. The fire was dealt with professionally and was extinguished within hours, without casualties and without the fire spreading beyond the storage tank. The company is fully cooperating with investigators.”