Israel's Environment Ministry Calls Haifa Plant CEO for Hearing on Excessive Toxic Emissions

Carmel Olefins, part of Oil Refineries complex, is leaking 'shocking' volatile pollutants, some carcinogenic, say ministry officials.

The Oil Refineries complex in Haifa Bay, in 2015.
Rami Shllush

Excessive levels of polluting emissions, some of which are known to be carcinogenic, were measured recently at the Carmel Olefins factory, located inside the Oil Refineries Ltd. complex in Haifa. As a result, the Environmental Protection Ministry has called Avner Maimon, CEO of the Oil Refineries group, for a hearing on the issue early next week.

The ministry, which received reports of the emissions a week ago, also demanded that ORL stop the leaks immediately, even if it means halting production processes.

The emissions were coming not from the main chimneys at Carmel Olefins but from leaks at various points in the plant's internal pipelines, through which various raw materials and manufactured substances flow. Since such leakage is common in chemical plants or refineries, regular procedures for dealing with such cases have been implemented in recent years, similar to the accepted practice all over the world.

The tests for pollutants are focused mostly on discovering volatile organic compounds throughout the ORL compound, and typically do not focus on specific locations. The compounds are poisonous and often carcinogenic.

Ministry officials were surprised to find that after a fairly long period in which the problem was successfully resolved at Carmel Olefins – where the annual volume of 900 tons of volatile organic chemicals released into the atmosphere six years ago dropped to 250 tons in 2014 – last year that amount more than doubled, to 534 tons. Almost half of that was ethylene, along with 4.1 tons of benzene, constituting a 220-percent rise in the space of a year.

“This is a most serious and upsetting finding,” said Shuli Nezer, deputy director general for industry and licensing at the ministry. “We were simply shocked when we saw [the results]. We don’t know what the reason for it is. It is very possible that, in order to deal with the problem, the factory will have to replace significant components in its manufacturing facilities.”

Materials such ethylene and propylene, also found in the emissions, break down in the atmosphere within a few hours into formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic, Nezer noted.

The ministry informed Maimon that it will not accept such a situation, and may be forced to issue an order to stop it under the Clean Air Law, even if it means shutting down the plant. This is part of a policy of tougher enforcement of pollution-reduction regulations among the plants in the Haifa Bay area, the ministry added.

Carmel Olefins produces materials for the plastics industry, using chemicals and fuels it receives from the Oil Refineries. It has installed thermal oxidizers on its chimneys as required to prevent the emission of dangerous organic substances.

ORL said the refineries group as a whole has invested over 1 billion shekels (about $260 million) in recent years on continual improvements to environmental quality, with an emphasis on reducing air pollution. The company carefully abides by the relevant regulations, it said, and will continue to do what is necessary to reduce emissions at its facilities.

ORL said it had “received the invitation to the hearing [at the ministry], will study it and will present its response at the hearing itself.”