Haifa May Get Two Month Extension on Emptying Ammonia Tank

In brief submitted to Supreme Court, chemicals company says two month extension on emptying tank would give affected companies time to find other solutions.

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

Haifa Chemicals should get a two month extension on emptying its ammonia tank in the city, the state said in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court on Tuesday. The request states that affected companies need time to find other solutions for their ammonia needs.

The brief was filed just prior to the court’s hearing on Tuesday on Haifa Chemicals’ request for permission to appeal the decision by a lower court on the issue. In early March, the Haifa District Court ruled that the ammonia tank must be emptied by April 1 and could not be refilled in the interim, even if a ship carrying ammonia arrived. But that ruling was stayed until the Supreme Court decides whether it will hear the company’s appeal.

At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, the court asked the state to inform it by tomorrow of Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin's decision on various alternatives to the ammonia tank that are now being considered. It also requested the defense establishment’s position on one of the proposed alternatives, which remains classified.

In addition, the court asked the Manufacturers Association to inform it by that date how much ammonia the they have received since the lower court ordered the tank shut, how much they have used, and how much each factory needs every month. The other parties to the case will then have until April 9 to respond. Meanwhile, until a final ruling is issued on the case, no ammonia ships will be allowed to dock in Israel, the court said.

The state’s brief said the cabinet had discussed the issue on Sunday. At that meeting, the Environmental Protection Ministry said the tank should remain in operation until June 1 and should be allowed to continue accepting refills from incoming ships until then “in order to strike a proportionate balance between the danger posed by the continued operation of the ammonia arrangement ... ensuring that the tank is emptied in a safe manner that won’t in itself result in increased risk to the public health and the environment, and the needs of the economy." The ministry added that the arrangement "has operated for some 30 years in its current format.”

An expert opinion commissioned by the Haifa municipality that was written by 10 leading chemists has warned that any damage even to one of the ships ferrying ammonia to Israel could result in tens of thousands of deaths. But according to the state's brief, the ministry’s hazardous materials unit concluded that most of the report’s “conclusions and data ... are incorrect” and paint a picture of “extreme, exaggerated risks that have no basis.” An expert opinion commissioned by the ministry also found various professional errors in the chemists’ report, the brief said.

Nevertheless, the state agreed that a change is necessary in the way ammonia is brought to Israel. “We agree with the ultimate conclusion of the Haifa municipality’s report ... even if we disagree about the degree of danger," the brief said. "It’s important to stop it in its current format, but according to the timetable set by the ministry.”

A study of alternatives to the current method is at an advanced stage, the brief continued, but no decisions have been made yet. It added that it would be possible to find solutions to most of the economic problems caused by the tank’s shutdown within two to three months, with the exception of the problem facing fertilizer manufacturers.