Controversial Israel Chemicals Phosphate Mine Approved by Planning Council

The panel says Israel’s health standards in this instance are even stricter than Europe’s. The issue now goes to a district committee.

Protest against the planned Israel Chemicals phosphate mine.
Emil Salman

Despite stiff opposition from green groups and local people, the National Planning and Building Council has approved a plan for an Israel Chemicals subsidiary to mine phosphate near the southern town of Arad.

The move must now be approved by a district planning committee.

The national council’s approval of the plan, which passed Tuesday in an 18-2 vote with two abstentions, is a major victory for Israel Chemicals. The Health Ministry had also expressed concerns against the mining plan by the subsidiary, Rotem Amfert.

On Tuesday, Israel Chemicals’ shares closed 2.8% higher on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange at 19.75 shekels ($5.09), compared with a 0.8% rise by the blue-chip TA-25 index.

Israel Chemicals had fought for the project for years; the battle included conflicting opinions submitted by the company and the Health Ministry. The issue was the risk that mining at the site, known as Sde Barir, would pose to residents of Arad and nearby Bedouin communities.

Sde Barir, the site of the planned phosphate mine.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Tuesday’s vote approved a policy document on the mining of industrial minerals, among them phosphate at a number of sites including Sde Barir.

“The national council, which heard the various positions, was convinced that phosphate mining would not present unacceptable risks to the health of the population compared to other infrastructure construction projects such as roads,” the council said in a statement.

According to the council, “the addition of mining operations, under the prevailing conditions, meets the environmental standards of the Clean Air Law.”

The council said that Israel’s standards were even stricter than European standards and that even the Health Ministry’s expert had said the project presented no health risk from radioactive materials.

The Health Ministry needed time to develop its position, and during the term of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s predecessor, Yael German, an independent expert from the United States was consulted, leading the ministry to oppose the plan.

The consultant, Jonathan Samet, believed that phosphate mining in the area would increase the level of particulate matter in the air in nearby communities. It would therefore risk higher rates of disease and death.

Since taking office this year, Litzman has stuck to this position.

Phosphates are used by industry, and by agriculture for fertilizers. The National Planning and Building Council said its approval of the plan was designed to provide industrial minerals through 2045 “while striking a balance between the needs of the economy and the need to protect the environment and the quality of life.”

Litzman, however, called Tuesday’s vote “unfortunate,” noting that the ministry had only one vote on the council and no veto power. The ministry would continue to lobby its position as the matter moved to the district planning committee, Litzman said.

The chairman of the Rotem Amfert workers’ committee, Moshe Haddad, said phosphate mining at Sde Barir would spare his plant the prospect of being shut down.

“Thousands of families in the Negev will be able to earn a living in dignity,” he said. “Rotem employees have been working for decades at phosphate mining and there is no sign of illness as a result of the mining.”

Still, he called on the government to condition approval of the mining on a commitment by Israel Chemicals to eschew layoffs. Instead, it should hire more workers at the site.

Israel Chemicals said the national council’s decision came after a delay of years and offered “the prospect of continued phosphate-industry operations in the Negev in the coming decades.”

In its statement, ICL said it was committed to complying with clean air legislation “and all accepted standards.” It would closely monitor the impact of the mining, whose results would be made public.

In the past, Israel Chemicals warned that a failure to approve mining at Sde Barir would seriously harm its mine reserves in the middle and long term. A failure would also inflict serious financial damage unless alternative sources were found. Israel Chemicals currently has three phosphate mines in the Negev.

As a hedge against a possible loss of future supplies at Sde Barir, the company recently invested $180 million in a phosphate-mining venture with Yunnan Phosphate Chemicals, the leading Chinese producer of the mineral. ICL is also buying a 20% stake in the Chinese firm, subject to approval by China’s security regulators.