Beirut Blast Reignites Concerns Over Hazardous Materials in Israel's Haifa Port

Experts warn of a number of scenarios that could lead to fatal consequences: 'There are facilities with large quantities of hazardous materials and nobody has a clue what’s in them'

A 1957 fuel storage facility of near residential buildings in Haifa Bay, August 17, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The explosion in the port of Beirut at the beginning of the month has suddenly brought back the discussion of the hazardous materials treated in the Haifa Port. Experts say that the situation in Haifa is not the same as in Beirut – where the authorities had long been negligent in dealing with large quantities of combustible materials. But this doesn’t mean that there are no risks in different parts of the Haifa Bay, and those same experts are now warning that serious mishaps can occur that will harm the population in the area, and that there is a lack of information on the way hazardous materials are being handled in the bay area.

A committee of ministry directors general established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel shortly after the disaster in Lebanon is to deliver its recommendations within 90 days. Gamliel’s ministry is also to complete a risk assessment survey where the most dangerous scenarios will be examined.

Haifa Bay, August 17, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The person in charge of the risk assessment is Eli Stern, who composed a similar document for the industrial area of Ramat Hovav in the Negev. The first phase of the assessment, which focused on scenarios of mishaps in normal operations, was made public about a year ago. It discussed 1,000 sources of danger and some 800 hazardous materials in the area, and it stated that the Haifa Bay area does not pose acceptable risk according to international standards.

However, Stern says that the document as it stands now does not give a full picture of the risks in the bay area because it only relates to serious incidents such as earthquakes, hostile acts and mishaps during movement of hazardous materials. “We were to have started working on this phase but everything has been frozen because there’s no budget,” Stern said last week.

Although a disaster of the magnitude of the Beirut Port is unlikely in Haifa because the same “insane” quantities of hazardous materials are not stored in Haifa and are not negligently stored, on the other hand serious incidents could go beyond the facility and reach the population.

The final version of the risk assessment is meant to help the Environmental Affairs Ministry determine which facilities will need to improve their safety. The ministry has already begun the process with the Deshenim fertilizer manufacture, Gadiv Petrochemical Industries, the oil refineries and Dor Chemicals.

Two other risk-assessment experts, Yaron Hanan and Prof. Amos Notea, wrote in the first phase of the assessment that there are many old facilities in the bay area that are at high risk. Hanan and Notea said that the state comptroller’s report had also noted many failures in maintenance of hazardous materials as well as failures in oversight by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

‘Difficulty in realizing the risk’

Another risk expert, Ephraim Laor, who specializes in mass casualty events at the Holon Institute of Technology, said: “What stands out particularly in Israel is the difficulty in realizing the essence of the risk. For example, they’ve already allocated large amounts of money to protecting schools against earthquakes but implementation is going at a snail’s pace.” Laor notes that a tsunami following an earthquake in the Mediterranean Sea could flood industrial facilities and the meeting of sea water with materials stored at high temperature and pressure could lead to a fatal outcome.

Buildings in the fertilizer plant complex and the entrance to the fuel terminal of the refineries, August 16, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush
Gadiv Petrochemical Industries and Dor Chemicals, August 16, 2020Credit: Rami Shllush

Laor also points out the lack of information. “There are facilities with large quantities of hazardous materials and nobody has a clue what’s in them and what the cumulative risks are of releasing it – meaning if a number of accidents occur at once." This situation isn’t unique to Israel, but what unique is “that there are enemies who want to strike these facilities and release these materials into the air. In the Second Lebanon War there were attempts to strike in this area, and only by miracle did we escape something like what happened in Beirut, and even greater in magnitude.”

There is no ammonium nitrate – the material that exploded in Beirut – in the Haifa Port, but there are piles of hazardous materials that should not be stored near each other. In some cases, these materials remain in close proximity due to delays in loading and unloading ships and the authorities are not aware of it. An earthquake, Laor pointed out, could cause such materials to collide, resulting in severe damage.

Haifa Port, August 17, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

According to Laor, security conditions and earthquake probability in Israel should mean that the import of some materials should be banned – especially in quantities exceeding Israel’s needs. For example, enough ammonia should be imported only to meet Israel’s needs, not for export.

Another means of dealing with hazardous materials is to story them underground under Mount Carmel. Laor believes that it will be difficult to move the industries themselves because they provide thousands of jobs, but moving them could reduce the risk significantly.

Local unions have come out against the move. Union heads at the union at the oil refineries and petrochemical industries have written a letter to Gamliel stating that the “utterly reject the attempt to compare the disaster in Beirut to the situation of the petrochemical industries in the Haifa Bay, which are managed according to the strictest safety standards in Western Europe,” and that the Israel economy needs raw materials, such as ammonia needed for refrigeration facilities.

Although the movement out of the bay area of additional hazardous materials is under discussion, following the end of ammonia storage in the port two years ago, activists say they are concerned about additional hazardous materials coming into the area. An environmental group, Forum for the Beaches has submitted an objection to the Haifa District Planning and Construction Committee to a plan, at an advanced stage of approval, for a new facility for the storage of hazardous materials in the area.