Israel Grants Ammonia Tank a Three-month Extension Before Mandatory Closure

Haifa Chemicals still faces court decision on fate of controversial facility that might close it down shortly.

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

Haifa’s controversial ammonia tank got conditional approval from the Environmental Protection Ministry to continue to operate for another three months but insisted it must be shut down when the new deadline arrives because it poses a danger to public health.

Still, the ministry’s decision, which immediate came under fire from Nobel chemistry laureate Dan Shechtman, isn’t the final word on the tank’s short-term fate. A Haifa District Court will hear appeals from both sides on Sunday about an earlier injunction issued by a lower court ordering the tank to be decommissioned.

In the meantime, however, the tank can, from the ministry’s point of view, remain operational for another three months beyond the March 1 date on which its current permit expires.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said it agreed to extending the operating licenses for Haifa Chemicals, the company that owns and operates the tank, because shutting it on short notice would disrupt many factories and create problems for hospitals and even the army.

“By virtue of our responsibility to protect the health of Haifa Bay residents, it was decided not to renew the toxins permit for the ammonia tank, in spite of pressures that were exerted on us,” said Environment Minister Zeev Elkin.

Not only is the permit’s term limited, but Haifa Chemicals will have to get permission every time it refills the tanks with ammonia, which is imported by ship about once a month.

The city won the original injunction after a report issued two weeks ago by 10 experts, led by Haifa University Prof. Ehud Keinan, warned of the risks to the area if the tank, which has a 12,000-ton capacity, were to be damaged or destroyed and released noxious fumes into the air.

But some 100 factories warned right after the decision that they may have to shut down production lines without access to the ammonia, and Haifa Chemicals last week won an order from the Haifa Magistrates Court freezing the injunction, which would have gone into effect earlier this week.

Meanwhile, Schechtman, who teaches at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of technology and had signed on the report calling for the tank to be shut down, told TheMarker that the ministry had erred even in giving it a temporary reprieve.

“In my view the extension given to operate the tank is definitely a negative,” he said.

“The ammonia will be coming to the port another three times. Israel is effectively announcing to terrorists, ‘You have three months to organize yourselves and fire missiles or rockets at the ship [delivering the ammonia]. This has to end now. What will happen in another three months? They’ll go to the High Court of Justice and ask the matter to be examined in another six months?”

He said Haifa Chemicals should immediately cease production of fertilizers based on the ammonia, and let other factories use what’s left in the tank, which will mean drawing down the chemicals more slowly and obviate the need to refill it until substitutes can be arranged.