Fearing Pollution, Israelis Leave Homes as Offshore Gas Production Begins

Officials have cautioned that the processing platform off the Carmel Coast will emit carcinogenic benzene, but insist the situation is being monitored to minimize risks.

Noa Shpigel
Zafrir Rinat
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The Kopf family of Zichron Yaakov prepares to leave their home.
The Kopf family of Zichron Yaakov prepares to leave their home.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Zafrir Rinat

Texas-based Noble Energy began natural gas production at its Leviathan processing platform off Israel’s Mediterranean coast on Tuesday.

As processing of the gas begins, dozens of tons of pollutants were expected to be released into the air, including 76 kilograms (167 pounds) of benzene, a carcinogen. The processing platform is 9.5 kilometers (about 6 miles) off Israel’s Carmel coast.

Three hundred people protested outside government offices in Tel Aviv against the project's potential health risks. Some held signs saying "the people demand clean air to breathe."

Some residents in towns south of Haifa made plans to leave their homes for at least the duration of the startup phase of production, fearing air pollution levels would rise. 

Local authorities sought to allay these concerns saying no dangerous level of pollution had been  monitored on Tuesday morning, and they would be on the lookout to see whether the situation changed later in the day. 

The extraction of undersea natural gas to the platform began on Tuesday morning, involving two wells at a drilling platform 120 kilometers (75 miles) off the Israeli coast. The gas was to flow through a pipeline to the processing platform 9.5 kilometers from the coast off Dor Beach.

The emissions of pollutants were expected to last through the afternoon.

The Sharon-Carmel Association of Cities and the Environmental Protection Ministry will be monitoring the process with hourly reports on the composition of the gas and a sampling of the pollutants at several different locations. Thermal cameras will monitor possible leaks.

Both agencies said that according to forecast models, air pollution on shore should not exceed maximum allowable benzene concentrations.

The Leviathan offshore platform.
The Leviathan offshore platform.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

But some residents said they wouldn't take any chances. In Zichron Ya’akov, Pardes Hannah, Hadera, Atlit and communities in the Carmel Coast region many people said they had plans to temporarily evacuate their homes. 

Gal Kopf of Zichron Yaakov was planning to leave with her husband and two children on Monday night to stay with her family in Kiryat Haim, a northern neighborhood of Haifa in an area of the city that is home to heavy industry. “On ordinary days, it’s full of pollution, but it’s apparently better there. We’re not prepared to be guinea pigs,” she said.

“If the Environment Ministry would bring their families for a picnic on Dor Beach [on Tuesday], maybe they would restore some of my confidence. But as long as they aren’t doing that, of course they will say there is no risk. It’s not as if they will see results immediately. Tomorrow is just the opening shot.”

Maya Cypress of Moshav Avihayil, northeast of Netanya, and one of the organizers of the evacuation, said she and her husband weren't sure when they would return home with their two children. Spending time with her parents in Jerusalem was one option.

“The emissions will continue for eight hours but what will happen after that? The gas production is starting and there isn’t any filter for the pollution,” Cypress said.

An organization called Shomrei Habayit, which has been battling the gas platform, posted a list on its Facebook page of area doctors who had committed to leave the area. The organization also announced plans for a protest strike at several area elementary schools and high schools.

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