After Dismissing 800 Employees, Haifa Chemicals Signals It's Ready to Keep Southern Facility Open

Israeli government officials are now weighing options for keeping ammonia flowing to the plant that employs 400

A worker near flames at a demonstration at Haifa Chemicals, summer 2017.
A worker near flames at a demonstration at Haifa Chemicals, summer 2017. Gil Eliahu

A day after Haifa Chemicals announced it was shutting down for good, the company signaled Thursday it might be willing to keep its southern production facility open if a way can be found to supply it with the ammonia it needs to make its fertilizer and other products.

The company said it was closing its two plants in Haifa and the south and dismissing 800 employees after the Supreme Court set a final deadline of September 18 to shut down the giant ammonia tank it operates in Haifa. The company took workers by surprise by saying it was closing its entire operation rather than just the Haifa plant, prompting angry protests and strike threats.

But on Thursday, after government officials scrambled to find a solution, Haifa Chemicals said the southern plant would stay open and retain its 400 staff if the government approved a method for importing ammonia.

Sources told TheMarker that the Environmental Protection Ministry and Home Front Command were examining a plan to ship small quantities of ammonia by ship to Haifa and Ashdod and deliver them by truck to the southern plant. The sources said the plan could let ammonia shipments resume in the next few weeks after orders are placed, but only Haifa has the facilities to unload the ammonia.

The 12,000-ton tank was ordered shut by a Haifa court in February at the behest of the Haifa municipality after a report warned of the health and safety dangers if the tank were damaged or developed leaks. The plan now being discussed would limit the amount of ammonia in Israel at any one time.

Haifa Chemicals makes potassium nitrate for agriculture and industry, specialty plant nutrients and food phosphates. It accounts for about 2% of Israel’s industrial exports, the Manufacturers Association of Israel estimates. Nearly all of its $650 million in annual sales are exported, the company says.

Officials have also been discussing a second option of shipping the ammonia, which is to ship in isotanks — containers used to transport liquids, gases and powders as bulk cargo on ships. The isotanks could be shipped to Haifa Chemicals’ southern plant directly as needed or stored at Ashdod Port. The latter option would require extra safety measures, take longer to implement and cost more.

The isotanks option reportedly got the backing of officials at a meeting on Thursday that included Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Environment Minister Zeev Elkin as well as representatives from the National Security Council and Home Front Command.

Jules Trump, whose family controls Haifa Chemicals through the U.S. company Trance Resource Inc., has said he is prepared to accept any measure the government offered that would renew deliveries of ammonia as soon as possible.

In any case, the proposals for reopening Haifa Chemicals’ northern plant are poor, at least for the short term, because a Supreme Court decision last week bars the company from getting the toxins permit it needs to use ammonia until the tank is emptied, a process that will take weeks.

Moreover, the Home Front Command opposes the idea of using isotanks in Haifa and the municipality opposes alternatives.

Haifa Chemicals’ decision to close the southern plant came as a surprise because the company was in discussions with the government on how to keep the ammonia flowing to the facility. Sources have said the announcement it was being shuttered – plus the union protests that flowed – were all part of a campaign to pressure the government.