'State’s Decisions in Ammonia Case Raise Suspicions'

Top gov’t officials are 'not telling truth' warned Haifa prosecutor, but was ignored

FILE PHOTO: Haifa Chemicals' ammonia tank, Israel's largest ammonia tank, is seen in the Haifa bay area, Israel, February 26, 2017.
Baz Ratner/REUTERS

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan ignored a letter from Haifa District Prosecutor Eitan Lederer, in which he made serious allegations about the behavior of government officials in the Haifa Chemicals ammonia case, saying they had acted improperly.

Lederer described these officials as “not telling the truth” and “consistently choosing at various junctures the alternative that financially benefited Haifa Chemicals in two ways – the cost of ammonia and preserving its monopoly.”

The affair concerns a series of controversial decisions in recent months made in favor of the tank’s operator, Haifa Chemicals. After Lederer wrote his letter, there was an urgent cabinet meeting convened to approve another move that favored Haifa Chemicals. The High Court of Justice ruled in late July that the ammonia tank in Haifa port must be emptied by September 18, and the company is threatening to shut down operations and fire its 800 workers.

The Haifa municipality and environmental groups have been warning that the solutions being formulated will come at the expense of public safety.

“I am writing to you regarding questions I’ve already raised in recent months during our handling of the ammonia affair regarding the motivation behind the conduct of some state officials in the case,” Lederer wrote to Nitzan in June, in a letter obtained by Haaretz. “The accumulating weight of the things I will detail brings me to the conclusion that there is a basis for suspecting that irrelevant and even invalid motives are behind the positions of these government officials.”

Following Lederer’s letter, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira called for the opening of a criminal investigation into the matter. But Mendelblit has yet to call for a delay or a freeze on the government ministries’ actions in the affair, and even now there are continued efforts to help Haifa Chemicals overcome regulatory obstacles.

Thus, for example, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Justice Ministry to prepare legislation that would remove licensing powers from the Haifa municipality, after the city refused to give Haifa Chemicals a business license. In addition, ways are being examined to allow Haifa Chemicals to import ammonia in the manner it prefers – by ships that would act as floating storage facilities – and not in reinforced containers that the professionals recommended. Although the Environment Ministry had objected to this method as being too dangerous, it later changed its mind based on the opinion of the National Security Council, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. Haifa Chemicals objected to reinforced shipping containers because they are more expensive.

In his five-page letter, Lederer described the worrisome behavior of the Environmental Protection Ministry, the National Security Council and the Prime Minister’s Office in the matter, supplying several examples. “I cannot find an innocent explanation for the overall picture described. I fear that the state officials I’ve mentioned, or at least some of them, are acting out of invalid considerations that raise suspicions of ethical violations. Although I don’t have an evidentiary basis to prove criminal violations, I think we cannot close our eyes to this behavior and must examine it before advancing a cabinet decision on the matter.”

Around a week after the letter was sent, the cabinet convened urgently to approve Haifa Chemicals’ proposal to import ammonia by ship after the tank was closed, defining the plant as “national infrastructure” even though Haifa Chemicals is a private company and not state infrastructure. A recent study showed that only three percent of the ammonia imported is used by hospitals, the army, or other national enterprises and that this amount could easily be replaced.

After Shapira learned of Lederer’s letter, his office also wrote to Nitzan, saying Lederer’s claims had to be examined. When he got no answer, he wrote to Mendelblit, saying what Lederer described raised suspicions of criminal behavior. 

The Justice Ministry refused to respond to the claims, saying, “At this stage we will not give details on the moves made by law enforcement on this issue, by which we neither affirm or deny any part of the claim.”

Haaretz reported two months ago that the State Comptroller’s Office had raised a suspicion that Environment Ministry officials were passing Haifa Chemicals classified information that allowed the company to prepare accordingly. The Environment Ministry denied the allegation.