Israel Backtracks on Ammonia Tank Closure

State attorneys now say they support court order calling for Haifa storage facility to be emptied immediately.

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

In a major setback for Haifa Chemicals, government attorneys said on Sunday that the state has reversed its stance and now believes that the company’s giant ammonia tank in Haifa poses a security and public health risk and should be emptied immediately.

Eitan Lederer of the State Prosecutor’s Office announced the sudden reversal days after the Environmental Protection Ministry extended the permit it had issued that would have allowed the tank to continue operating until June 1.

The announcement came as the Haifa District Court heard arguments by Haifa Chemicals and the city about whether a lower court ruling ordering the tank emptied should be enforced. Until now, government bodies like the National Security Council have said the tank did not pose a risk.

“The revised stance of government ministries is that the sole issue they ask be considered is the safety factor of emptying the tank in a controlled fashion to prevent any danger,” Lederer told the court.

He hinted that the Environmental Protection Ministry will reconsider the extension it awarded last week.

As thousands of protestors calling for the 12,000-ton capacity tank to be emptied gathered outside the courthouse, Judge Tamar Sharon Natanel signaled that she too favored the measure, calling the least dramatic of the scenarios painted in a key report on the risk, in which an ammonia leak sickens 1,000 people, to be “a disaster on a national scale that we cannot accept.”

Haifa Chemicals has sought to nullify the order to empty the tank on the grounds that it doesn’t present a security risk – citing government opinions to back up its stance – and that ceasing the operation will cause harm to industry and the economy.