Analysis

Oil Refinery Fire in Israel: An Ominous Warning

Blaze in fuel storage tank at Haifa oil refineries complex shows need for international experts.

A fire that broke out in a fuel tank at Oil Refineries Ltd in Haifa, December 25, 2016.
Rami Shllush

Many large cities in developed nations have large faculties for storing and refining fuel nearby. But it seems it is hard to find a city such as Haifa, which has had such a long history of problems that have caused fires and the emitting of pollutants from these facilities. It is hard to find a country in which the government has acted at such a glacial pace, bordering on negligence, to move the dangers that can be relocated elsewhere.

It is still not clear what caused the fire in the fuel storage tank in the Oil Refineries complex in Haifa on Sunday. What is clear is that the managers of the site have been far too busy recently providing explanations for the repeated failures. A year ago, it happened at the Carmel Olefins plant, where toxic materials were emitted for too long a time at levels above the legal limits. At the time, they blamed it on a fault in the electrical system. In recent months, there were problems with operating the industrial gas flare that is meant to burn off the remnants of gases safely. These have all been described by the industries involved as minor incidents that were dealt with quickly.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has been flexing its muscles and has sent senior officials to have their pictures taken inside the production plants in poses looking as if they are closely supervising the sites, and has also summoned senior executives from Oil Refineries Ltd. for hearings. But maybe they are finding it difficult to handle the batteries of experts, consultants and engineers they face. Maybe the time has come to invite an international team of experts on industrial risks to come visit Israel. They can provide a picture of the frequency and severity of the failures compared to the rest of the world.

It is possible that they can help the Environmental Protection Ministry put together further means to guarantee residents of the Haifa Bay region that they will no longer live in fear of a black cloud or a huge flame in the middle of the night.

Sunday’s fire needs to serve as a catalyst to speed up steps that have already started for the purpose of reducing a number of the environmental dangers in the area. Not far from the burning fuel storage tank is another fuel tank farm. A plan exists to move these fuel tanks to a more modern and advanced site farther from residential areas. But this plan has been held up because of financing problems, among other reasons.

Another danger is the ammonia storage tank operated by Haifa Chemicals alongside the port. The government has failed in completing the tender to build a new ammonia manufacturing plant in the Negev and left the residents around Haifa with a facility with thousands of tons of hazardous materials. The time has come to think about a different solution, or even setting a date for ending its operation at the present location.

In coming years the fuel refinery and storage industry around Haifa is only expected to grow. Given the economy’s dependence on such fuels, the chances to remove these facilities from the region in the near future are very slim. What can be done is to place strict limitations on increasing production to contain the environmental danger. Plans must be reevaluated because it is not just a matter of failures and fires, but also of preventing exposure to chronic pollution, which the facilities emit routinely.