Potential Phosphate Mine Casts Toxic Shadow Over Bedouin Community

Will a planned Israel Chemicals site in southern Israel prove a lifesaver to the local economy or a hazard that will endanger Israeli townsfolk and Negev Bedouin?

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The Sde Brir phosphate mine, near Arad.
The Sde Brir phosphate mine, near Arad.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Hagai Amit

At midday on a cold, rainy December day, we arrive in the southern Israeli city of Arad. Driving past the tiny airstrip, we continue on a dirt road for five minutes, until reaching a long line of makeshift structures powered by generators. It’s the school compound of the Bedouin town of al-Pora’a, where more than 2,000 children study. A few kilometers away looms the white, so-called “smooth mountain” – the site of a future giant phosphate mine that’s estimated to hold 65 million tons of phosphate, and which is deemed critical to the future of Israel Chemicals subsidiary Rotem Amfert.

Three weeks ago, the National Planning and Building Council agreed to let Rotem Amfert begin pilot mining to check the environmental impact at Sde Brir, near the Dead Sea. That followed 15 years of battles, which reached new heights last week when Arad city councilman Mano Bitman complained to the police against a senior official at the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Bitman alleged that the decision to allow mining was based on false representations to the planning council that it wouldn’t affect air pollution beyond permissible levels. The ministry official, he alleged, relied on average air pollution levels for Arad – but the rules state that the pollution has to be measured on the border of the mine itself, and there it’s thousands of percent higher.

The ministry replied that the opinion about mining at the site was “finalized and examined” by the relevant sections at the ministry, and that personal attacks on officials was not appropriate.

The area slated for mining development starts at the two palm trees at the entrance to the al-Pora’a schools zone and stretches as far west as another Bedouin town, Kseifa. The area is tranquil, barring the explosions and dust clouds from the mining operations. Yet although the plan was approved despite the protests from Arad residents, nobody’s ever talked to the Bedouin about the mining, they complain.

“The Health Ministry explicitly rules that it will cause mortality and illness among children and adults,” says Khalil Jabari, one of Kseifa’s 8,000 residents. If that couldn’t help stop the plan, Jabari figures that the villagers are helpless. But it’s their home and they’re not budging: “If we get cancer, we get cancer,” he says defiantly.

Jabari says no one has contacted the community from either the government, Israel Land Administration or Israel Chemicals. “Once a convoy came from Rotem Amfert,” he relates. “I wanted to talk with them, but they got into their cars. I recently met an ICL worker at the car wash: he turned out to be their mining manager. I told him Bedouin live at Sde Brir and he said, ‘Just five families.’ I said, ‘I’m local, and there are a lot of people and a lot of children.’”

He adds that the authorities’ attitude toward locals has “definitely” changed since the Sde Brir mining plans were confirmed. Before that, Jabari says, a blind eye was generally turned to illegal construction – maybe two homes were pulled down every month. Now, he says, it’s 10. Even canvas fencing gets torn down. “There’s always a helicopter overhead,” he adds.

Bye bye sanity

Although the mine is slated to go where their town sits, the Bedouin are not at the center of the big argument over Sde Brir’s mine. The figures for mortality and illness relate only to Arad residents, ignoring the 15,000 Bedouin living in the area.

A protest against the planned Israel Chemicals mine in Sde Brir.Credit: Emil Salman

“The Bedouin are Israel’s problem, not just ICL’s,” says Israel Chemicals’ community relations chief, Doron Orgil. “The mining could be a solution for them, enabling them to regulate their towns.” Orgil foresees the Bedouin being evacuated for a few years, during which the area would be mined. Then they would return, or simply make the move permanent.

The most peculiar element in the whole affair is that the Sde Brir plan is forging ahead despite the opposition of the body that’s the ultimate arbiter on public health. “As health minister, I’m supposed to tell the public even what they can and can’t eat,” says Health Minister Yaakov Litzman. “Arad has a bylaw banning certain trees because of the sensitivity of asthmatics, but mining at Sde Brir is okay? People have gone insane.”

Former Health Minister Yael German brought in an external expert from overseas who ruled out all mining – even a pilot – at Sde Brir. That is the only objective assessment on the topic to date, and rules that morbidity in the Bedouin population near the mine will increase.

German, for one, can’t understand the decision, which she says will ruin Arad from the perspective of both health and image. “Who would want to develop tourism for Arad when there are blasts and dust clouds two or three times a week?” she asks.

For whom the phosphate mine tolls

Rotem Amfert, meanwhile, uploaded a video made two years ago, showing 25 Arad residents on a tour of a phosphate mine. It ended with pronouncements like “This has changed my attitude” and “I don’t see anything that could be a problem.” One of the featured residents, however, claims the video is a dirty trick. “We were invited for a tour and on it I said, ‘Suppose you convince me, but how will you convince the rest of Arad?’ They edited it so I sounded persuaded.” Actually, he still objects to the mine, he says.

Amir Abramovich, ICL’s communications manager, rejects the allegation and says nothing was taken out of context: maybe somebody shown on the video changed their mind, Abramovich suggests.

That resident wouldn’t give his name, which one can understand: ICL is a power in Arad, being the biggest employer. To its credit, the company donates a lot of money to the town, including for schools.

During the 15-year battle over the Sde Brir mine, one notable incident occurred five years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military secretary, Yohanan Locker, asked Litzman and Itamar Grotto, head of public health services, for a second opinion, noting the importance of phosphate mining – to national security.

Phosphates? Israeli security? Well, each ton of phosphate contains tens of grams of uranium – which may be bad news for anybody breathing the dust, but is certainly a charming thought to policy makers. The merit of the security argument became clear when even Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon declined to support the mining concept, even in private.

The southern Israeli city of Arad.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Living in phosphate

Phosphate is crucial to agriculture, is used in products like laundry detergent, pesticides and drugs, and is definitely one of Israel’s most precious natural resources. Like oil, most of the world’s phosphate deposits originated in precipitation in ancient oceans, and phosphate is not a renewable resource. The mineral is mined in Israel exclusively by Rotem Amfert, and its biggest deposits are by Arad: about 560 million tons of the 2 billion tons Israel is believed to have. Rotem Amfert sells 7.5 tons of phosphate per year, for export through ICL. In 2014, the mineral was responsible for $211 million out of ICL’s total sales of over $6 billion.

A 40-minute drive from Arad leads to an active phosphate mine. A sign states that the Israel National Roads Company isn’t responsible for the roads because ICL built them. We don’t see dust or smell anything. The mine looks practically sterile. Yaakov Turjman, the mine manager, says he’s worked there on heavy machinery for 35 years and has no health problems from the mining.

As an Arad resident, doesn’t mining so close to the home bother you?

“We live inside the phosphate. Arad is built on phosphate. When they dug the mall, they found phosphate. I know the phosphate and there’s no problem with it.”

What about the claims that the hospitals are full of ICL workers?

“Nonsense. I don’t believe it.”

Problems with dust are very localized, he adds. “People criticizing the mining are like shoemakers criticizing the tailor. Who understands phosphate better than I do? The ones hurting Arad are the ones publicizing the battle against the mining. Who would come to live in Arad after hearing all that?”

Arad’s Onn Cohen, a father of two, is unconvinced. A mine next to his hometown will imperil his children, he says. His father worked at ICL for 40 years and from conversations with him, Cohen understood that a mine in one’s backyard is not a great idea. “I’m not against the workers or the company, but there are alternatives to mining at Sde Brir,” says Cohen, whose father died of leukemia. He loves Arad (“It’s the best city in Israel”), but if the mine rises, he will take his family and move away.

Are you so sure of the correlation between the mining and morbidity?

Cohen: “When you walk around the oncology and hematology labs, it’s clear as day.” People from Rotem Amfert have different illnesses, “but one senses hints and looks by doctors, and statements like, ‘Ah, you work at Rotem.’ The silence is deafening. One can’t talk about the correlation and nobody does the statistics, but words aren’t necessary. I once made a list of the dead. Most hadn’t reached 70 and didn’t enjoy their huge company pensions for a second. You see countless ICL workers in these wards, you see your neighbors fall sick – that’s enough for me. I don’t need anybody to tell me if it’s dangerous or not. And if you do need somebody, well, the Health Ministry is saying it.”

Abramovich says no excessive illness exists among Rotem workers, not in general and not among the mine workers. Who says so? The responsible doctor at the Economy Ministry says so explicitly, he says.

Indeed, the Rotem staff support the mine and some Aradites do too, seeing in their mind’s eye a boon in municipality taxes, for instance.

Although the Health Ministry ruled against mining at Sde Brir, the final authority in the matter is the Interior Ministry, whose planning authorities viewed the Health Ministry ruling as a mere recommendation. Even afterward, the region will meet environmental clean-air standards, claim the planning authorities.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said it wouldn’t allow deviation from Israel’s standards anywhere outside the mining area boundaries, especially where people live. If air pollution exceeds the standards, the mining operation will be halted, it said.

Fighting hard, Rotem Amfert claims that failure to develop Sde Brir would sound its death knell and cost 9,000 families their livelihoods – a bizarre argument given the vast amounts of phosphate to be mined elsewhere in the region. Also, if ICL employs 12,000 people all told, and Rotem employs maybe 1,000 at most, the numbers don’t add up. That said, any job losses would be tough on the region.

Aradites are also still fighting hard against the mine. Two weeks ago, 1,065 residents signed a power of attorney for Effi Michaeli to represent them in a High Court of Justice petition against the planning council’s decision. “The pilot is full mining,” Michaeli says. “It is an experiment that is testing irrelevancies: not morbidity or mortality, but the quantity and extent of emissions. But we already have that information from everywhere ICL mines.”

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