Israeli Environmental Ministry Suspected of Tipping Off Haifa Chemicals on Ammonia Tank Decision

Watchdog probing whether Haifa Chemicals knew in advance about the ministry's moves and prepared plans to counter them

The ammonia tank in Haifa, with the city in the background.
Rami Shllush

The State Comptroller’s Office is investigating suspicions that the Environmental Protection Ministry secretly tipped off Haifa Chemicals about pending decisions on its controversial ammonia plant, enabling the company to circumvent them.

In some cases, it appears Haifa Chemicals knew in advance about the ministry's moves and prepared plans to counter them. This raised the suspicion that the ministry itself had leaked information to the company.

The ministry said it did no such thing and did not act in Haifa Chemicals’ interests.

Long before Miki Ganor, a key suspect in the submarines investigation, was suspected of involvement in the ammonia tank investigation, the State Comptroller’s Office and State Prosecutor’s Office saw a similarity between this case and the Bezeq and submarine cases.

In the ammonia tank case, as with Bezeq, suspicions arose of a close association between government officials and a company they were supposed to supervise. There was also a suspicion that in both cases, government officials leaked inside information to these companies.

The National Security Council played a central role in both the ammonia and submarines cases. The council provided security reasons for the decisions in favor of Haifa Chemicals – weighing in on an issue outside its purview and contrary to expert opinion.

All these factors led State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to call on the attorney general this week to open a criminal investigation into the goings on with the ammonia tank.

Haifa Chemicals, owned by Jewish American businessman Jules Trump (no relation to the U.S. president), has been struggling in recent months against the decision to close down the tank because it has become a grave safety hazard. The company has been advancing an alternative – importing cheap ammonia — to ensure its monopoly.

Armed with senior lawyers and two public relations consultants, the company exerts pressure on anyone who may have a bearing on the issue. Jules Trump himself met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Prime Minister’s Office director general Eli Groner. Company officials frequently meet with Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin and have also met with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Recently Haifa Chemicals enlisted one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants, former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror, to champion its cause. Amidror says he acted voluntarily “out of Zionism” to prevent harm to the industry. His moves raised the comptroller staff’s suspicions, in view of the involvement of his former subordinate, the council’s deputy head, Ze’ev Zuk-Ram, in the affair. The two also spoke to each other about the subject.

Sources familiar with the issue described Zuk-Ram as “Haifa Chemicals’ representative in the government.” For example, he rejected the opinion prepared by Professor Ehud Keinan for the Haifa municipality about the dangers posed by the ammonia tank.

The prosecution’s attorneys found that the argument Zuk-Ram gave them to back up his position in court was provided by Haifa Chemicals, which Zuk-Ram neglected to disclose.

In recordings broadcast on Channel 2 News, Zuk-Ram was heard saying he had drafted his professional position about the tank following talks with Haifa Chemicals CEO Nadav Shahar and other experts. He added it was indeed preferable to take the tank away from densely populated urban area, “but ultimately there are considerations of profit.”

When Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav complained to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit against Zuk-Ram, Mendelblit responded that there was no flaw in Zuk-Ram’s conduct, as his opinion wasn’t based only on the company’s position but also on that of “other professionals.”

The comptroller is looking into the Environmental Protection Ministry’s position, since both the comptroller’s staff and the prosecution are under the impression that the ministry acted to protect Haifa Chemicals.

The comptroller’s examination found that ministry director general Yisrael Danziger handled the ammonia tank issue despite the conflict of interest agreement he had signed. A close friend of Danziger’s is a senior official in Israel Chemicals, one of the two major ammonia consumers in Israel.

Danziger, who was appointed by previous Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay, acted to exclude experts whose opinions were not compatible with his own, such as the ministry’s Haifa branch director Shlomo Katz and its legal adviser Dalit Dror. The director general called Katz a “Trojan horse” in one of the meetings. Minister Elkin attempted to undermine Dror’s opinion that the ammonia tank should not be allowed to continue operating as long as the Haifa municipality refused to give it a business license.

Elkin claimed the city was acting on the basis of unprofessional considerations and that adopting Dror’s opinion would prevent finding an alternative to the ammonia tank.

The High Court of Justice recently ruled, after four delays, that the ammonia tank must be emptied by the end of the month. The Environmental Protection Ministry supported the company’s request to delay the closure again to January 2018. On previous occasions the ministry itself asked to postpone the tank’s closure, contrary to the finance and economic ministries’ position.

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s argument – that the economy needed the tank – has nothing to do with protecting the environment.

In recent months ministry officials have pushed to keep the ammonia tank operating for another two to three years despite the High Court’s rulings, in a bid to ensure Haifa Chemicals’ interests.

The state had been claiming for years that the ammonia was crucial to the economy. But a recent examination found that 97 percent of the ammonia imported to Israel is used by two factories, Haifa Chemicals and Israel Chemicals. Only 3 percent was intended for hospitals, the IDF and other factories, which, the examination showed, could use a substitute for the ammonia. District Attorney Eitan Lederer, who represented the state at the Haifa court hearing, stated in March that the economy had no need for ammonia.

Lederer spoke several times about the authorities’ problematic behavior regarding the tank. “The state is helping Haifa Chemicals’ profits instead of the public,” he wrote in a letter cited by Channel 10.

Recently Lederer gave State Prosecutor Shay Nitzan a letter detailing suspicions against various government bodies. The comptroller’s office also asked for Nitzan’s comments, but he hasn’t responded.

Danziger calls him a “hostile official,” while Elkin complained to Mendelblit about the way the prosecution was representing his ministry. Recently, the comptroller’s staff asked to meet Lederer, but Mendelblit prevented the meeting for two weeks.

At a later stage the prosecution reversed its position and supported Elkin, following the prime minister’s and National Security Council’s intervention. The prosecution called, in the name of the Environmental Protection Ministry, to enable the economy to prepare for the decommissioning of the tank. The prosecution argued that the defense industries need the ammonia, although the state comptroller’s investigation had refuted this claim.

This argument was based partly on the National Security Council’s position, that the ammonia was needed in case of emergency. This was contrary to the position of the National Emergency Management Authority, which has jurisdiction on the matter. Due to this position, Haifa Chemicals received a further few months’ delay before closing the tank.

The ministry and prosecution’s zig-zag was also reflected in the positions regarding the alternative to the ammonia after the tank was closed. At the beginning of the month the cabinet convened for an urgent discussion on the issue. The chosen alternative was to import ammonia in a ship, which will serve as an unfortified floating ammonia tank.

The ministry first called this alternative extremely dangerous, but later changed its position on the basis of the National Security Council’s opinion. The safest way to transport ammonia, some ministry experts say, is in fortified containers. The ministry then scrapped this alternative, which Haifa Chemicals also opposed because it was more expensive.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said in response that it was not aware of the comptroller’s examination’s findings, but “the insinuations that the ministry’s activity leaned in favor of Haifa Chemicals are absurd, in view of the fact that the ministry is the one which in recent months decided to close the ammonia tank and deny Haifa Chemicals’ toxins permit, after prolonged foot-dragging.”

The ministry said that in general it does “not pass inside information to outside parties.”

The ministry also said that “after denying the toxins permit of Haifa Chemicals’ ammonia import and after the court ruling that the tank wasn’t legal, the ministry examined alternatives that do not involve using the tank. The ministry was consistent in denying the permit and in the position that the economy must be given three months to prepare.”

“The prosecution’s position about the need for ammonia is the position taken by the economics and finance ministries, so you must refer these questions to them,” the ministry said.

Danziger said about the statements attributed to him: “I and my team are those who fought and succeeded in ridding the Haifa Bay residents of the ammonia threat, which no one succeeded in doing before us. Beyond that I don’t intend to respond to the content of inside ministry conversations, it is irrelevant to my activity, which is impeccable, and to the unprecedented results I achieve in general and in the ammonia issue in particular.”