Plan to Avert Chemical Danger That Could Kill Thousands of Israelis Is Unacceptable, Says Israeli Minister

Environment minister Elkin says company offers no alternative to keeping tank in Haifa Bay.

Haifa Chemical's ammonia storage tank in Haifa.
Tomer Noyberg

Amid concerns about the catastrophic hazards posed by an ammonia tank operated in the Haifa area by Haifa Chemicals, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin told reporters yesterday that even though Haifa Chemicals submitted a response on the matter to the ministry on Wednesday, its filing did not propose an alternative to the current arrangement. He indicated that further steps would be taken as he views Haifa Chemicals’ position as unacceptable.

This week a team of scientists headed by internationally renowned chemist Prof. Ehud Keinan issued a report on the dangers of Israel’s ammonia infrastructure, with Keinan saying the tank “could fall apart even tomorrow morning,” adding, “If the tank falls apart we’re talking about 16,000 dead. If we’re talking about a hit to the [ship that carries ammonia to the tank] – many more.”

Haifa Chemicals uses 70 percent of Israel’s ammonia imports, with Israel Chemicals using the remaining 30 percent. The information that Haifa Chemicals provided was submitted in connection with a hearing the ministry held in late December after there were no bidders for a government contract for building an ammonia plant at Mishor Rotem in the Negev, which was due to replace the Haifa tank.

Haifa Chemicals commented it would act in accordance with the law.

Elkin said yesterday his ministry is still studying Haifa Chemical’s response, but noted it does not provide a timetable for the removal of the tank. Instead, Elkin said, the company is contending that the tank is in good condition.

Assuming the company’s filing will not persuade the ministry, Elkin said further steps would be considered by next month. If the ministry decides to revoke the permit for the tank, additional time would be granted to provide alternative ammonia sources for smaller users, he added.

Asked about the lack of bids, Elkin said it was the result of a change in the price of ammonia and that Haifa Chemicals, as the largest consumer of ammonia, was unwilling to commit to purchase from the new facility.

In response to a report issued this week by academics warning of the dangers posed by the tank in Haifa, Elkin said he and Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav agree the presence of the ammonia tank in Haifa is unacceptable.

Liora Amitai of the NGO Citizens for the Environment said Elkin and his predecessors have failed to take decisive steps to protect the population because they have been concerned that it would harm the interests of the ammonia plant, which she claimed “has been violating the law for years.”

“Haifa Chemicals has been given too much time to provide alternatives to the tank, but it doesn’t appear that it will provide them,” Amitai said, calling for the removal of the Haifa Bay tank.