An Inconvenient Truth About the Cause of Air Pollution in Haifa

Industry is only responsible for a quarter of the air pollution in the northern Israeli city - the bigger problem rests with the public.

The ammonia tank in Haifa, with the city in the background.
Rami Shllush

The ongoing fight to move an ammonia storage tank from the Haifa Bay area erupted because of high public awareness about the health hazards in the northern city and surrounding area. So, after two decades of foot-dragging, the timetable to empty the tank was cut to just 10 days by Haifa District Court.

Public sensitivity reached a peak about three months ago when the Health Ministry released a position paper on the incidence of morbidity and illness in the region. The ministry’s paper stated unequivocally that Haifa has an increased rate of morbidity: Cancer rates are about 15% higher than in the rest of Israel; it leads the country in asthma and breathing problems; and the city also has the highest rate of heart disease. Given all these findings, the ministry vehemently opposes expanding operations of the petrochemical industries in the Haifa Bay area.

Because of the public’s concerns about pollution in the area, the Health Ministry’s position once again fueled the activities of social and environmental groups against heavy industry in and around Haifa.

The environmental organizations have a large number and a wide range of demands. The most extreme is a call for the entire petrochemical industry to be relocated away from the region – a demand whose price tag starts in the billions of shekels. It’s not clear if this is even possible, due to the need for close ties to the port area and oil refineries there, which the petrochemical industries depend on.

In any case, what the environmental groups fail to highlight in their anti-industry campaign are the data from the ministry directly responsible for the matter: the Environmental Protection Ministry. This is because these data are much more low-key than those of the Health Ministry and environmental groups.

The Environmental Protection Ministry data show that it’s far from clear the industrial plants in the area are the cause of the air pollution in the Haifa Bay region – or, at the very least, show they are not the chief culprit.

60% of the problem

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s most recent report, from June 2016, details the complex picture of air pollution in Haifa – which is definitely worse than in other parts of Israel – highlighting a number of factors: the topography of the bay area, which traps the air pollution inside (and about which nothing can be done); the combination of polluting petrochemical industries and a polluting seaport; the large number of polluting trucks traveling between the port and plants; a large number of gas stations; and the residents’ contribution to pollution through their use of cars and other pollutants from their homes.

Within this complex picture, the part played by industry itself is not the main problem. The most dangerous source of pollution is volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are suspected of being carcinogenic. In the Haifa area today, factories emit only 27% of such organic compounds. The rest enter the air from gas stations (11%), households (23%) and, the largest source, transportation (37%).

It can be seen that household causes and transportation together create 60% of the pollutants. Yet still the criticism is directed almost solely at the industrial plants and not the public itself or transportation (both private and public).

The enormous campaign against industry in Haifa has shown signs of success. Since 2009, the Environmental Protection Ministry has been running a national plan to reduce pollution in the bay area. The first ran from 2010 through 2015, and the second plan, through 2018, is now underway.

Without a doubt, the ministry’s efforts have already borne fruit. According to every measure, industrial air pollution dropped dramatically between 2009 and 2015 – by 62%. And this is expected to fall another 51% by the end of next year. Sulfur emissions dropped 85% thanks to a switch to natural gas, but are not expected to drop much further because of delays in hooking up further plants to the natural gas pipelines; nitrous emissions, meanwhile, fell by 58%.

Demonstrators at a rally protesting against air pollution in Haifa, November 2016.
Rami Shllush

The incredible pressure on industry in the Haifa Bay area – including sanctions against plants that fail to meet the targets set for them – has brought about a major change in the levels of air pollution coming from these factories.

Targeting transportation

As opposed to industry, the other sources of air pollution have made almost no improvements over the same period. In fact, as far as the emission of VOCs from public transportation is concerned, the situation has gotten worse because of greater mileage as usage of vehicles rose. Household pollution has not changed.

This situation has led the Environmental Protection Ministry to focus its main efforts, for now, on reducing pollution from transportation. The ministry has found that 80% of air pollution from transport in the region comes from the heavy traffic of diesel trucks traveling between industrial plants and the Haifa port. As a result, a plan was developed in cooperation with the Haifa municipality: Diesel-fueled trucks are now banned from entering the city unless they have a special air pollution filter installed. The ministry is subsidizing the installation for truck fleets.

In addition, the ministry (along with city hall) has launched a program to replace the city’s garbage truck fleet with electric-powered trucks; is subsiding a switch to electric buses by the Egged bus cooperative; and is trying to provide incentives for ride sharing. “Our biggest challenge is not just to reduce the pollution itself, but also to convince the public that their vehicles pollute no less than the factories,” says the ministry.

The problem is that the public is not interested in hearing this particular message.

The fact that the factories and their owners are not the “bad guys” poisoning the children of Haifa, and that Haifa’s pollution problem has many parents – including the local residents – is not something the public likes to hear.

The problem is that the situation in Haifa is complicated. It’s a city whose economy is based on the existence of a large (and polluting) port; petrochemical industries (that also pollute) next to the port; a fleet of (heavily polluting) trucks that move between these two key economic centers; a large number of (equally polluting) gas stations that fill up the trucks, in addition to public and private transportation that also pollutes.

Without a doubt, this combination of urban living alongside Haifa’s unique addition of petrochemical plants, port and large numbers of trucks – along with the problematic topography – have created a unique problem.

But casting the blame on a single part of the equation is incorrect, and also dangerous. Such accusations have created a situation in which industry has cooperated hugely in reducing its pollution levels because of the intense public pressure, while the rest of the variables in the equation have been left untreated – which means Haifa’s pollution problems cannot be solved. This is not the way to promote balanced and sensible public policy.