Iconic Cooling Tower at Haifa Refinery Collapses, No Casualties Reported

'The fall of symbols is very meaningful': Tower collapses days after environmental activists and local mayors protested pollution from local industry

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The cooling towers in Haifa, June 12, 2020.
The cooling towers in Haifa, June 12, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

One of the cooling towers that was used in the past by oil refineries in Haifa collapsed on Friday morning. According to the initial report, there were no casualties and there is no fear of leaked hazardous materials. 

BAZAN Group, the Crude oil industry company which owns the refineries, said the building had not been used since 2009 and that its upper part collapsed Friday morning following the fall of a one of its walls the day before. The group further said that the area is secure and they are "taking all steps, including consulting with engineering and planning experts, to study the event."

The group's spokesman told Haaretz that the tower that collapsed was empty, while the one next to it serves as a visitor center that is currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis. 

The two refineries began operating in the late 1930s, along with refinery operations in the region, and were halted in 2009. They rose to a height of 76 meters and were often unjustly identified as a symbol of the pollution created by the refineries, when in fact what was emitted from them was water vapor.

On Thursday, environmental activists and local mayors held a demonstration calling for the evacuation of polluting industries from the Gulf of Israel, most notably the refineries and associated plants. 

The cooling towers in Haifa, June 12, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

Next week, the Knesset's Internal Affairs and Environment Committee will meet to discuss the plan for the evacuation of the plants.

Nehma Ronen, who previously served as a member of the board of directors of BAZAN Group and the chairman of the factory's environmental committee, told Haaretz in 2008 that the refineries had previously considered blasting the sights as a symbolic act. "We were thinking of blowing up the sights and then with a single blow, the contamination would disappear," she said at the time. 

The idea was rejected because of a survey conducted by Haifa and Krayot refineries, which indicated that residents were connected to the sights and preferred for them to remain.

Environment Minister Gila Gamliel wrote Friday morning that the collapse is "a significant symbol of the beginning of the end. This time the collapse happened by mistake, the next time it will be targeted. Haifa residents deserve to live in a healthy environment."

Attorney Jamila Hardell of a civic association for the environment said this morning that the collapse may be "just a symbol. The fall of symbols is very meaningful, at a time when everyone already understands that the petrochemical industry has no reason to exist in the heart of a domestic area."

A year ago, a state comptroller's report was published stating that the Environment Ministry could not properly monitor and act against the pollution caused by the factories in Haifa, with emphasis on the refineries. 

According to the report, the ministry has a problem with the oversight and enforcement ability of the BAZAN group. "The large number of exceptions, faults, violations of the law and instructions in BAZAN factories found by the ministry shows that despite the critic's comments in the past, the ministry's activities are still largely lacking when it comes to implementing the various enforcement measures available to the group," the report by former State Comptroller Joseph Shapiro said.

Earlier this month, the Haifa Magistrate's Court convicted BAZAN with a plea bargain for reckless and negligent offenses, environmental offenses of air pollution and permit violations following the fire that broke out in the company's container in Haifa in December of 2016. A fine of 1.2 million shekels ($ 350,000) was also imposed. 

The plea bargain was admitted and three executives of the company were convicted, including the group's vice president, and the three were fined and handed a two-year suspension sentence.

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