Environmentalists Cloudy Over Mysterious Sulphurous Material in Haifa Suburb

Investigation fails to pinpoint cause of environmental hazard.

M. Mayan

Two weeks after a cloud of unidentified sulphurous material spread in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Haim, causing an unpleasant smell and prompting several schools to close early, an investigation has failed to definitively pinpoint the cause.

The investigation, conducted by the Haifa District Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, said the sulphurous cloud appears to have come from a ship or drilling platform in the Mediterranean Sea, not from the nearby factories. Haifa Bay is home to a major industrial area that includes a chemical plant and an oil refinery.

The municipal association said the particles that sparked concern about a possible environmental disaster late last month, when residents reported a strong odor of sewage, rotten eggs and sulphur and complained of burning eyes and dizziness, have been identified as hydrogen sulfide.

“The incident was examined very seriously, like any incident of dangerous substances,” said the association’s director, Ofer Dressler.

The cloud dissipated about two hours after it was first reported, but it left behind questions about the source of the smell and fears about an environmental crisis.

“This incident is only one of hundreds of incidents taking place in recent years in bay, simply under the radar of the authorities, but within the areas of the lives and the breathing of the residents, including children, infants and adults, and people in poor health,” said Liora Amitai, director of the Coalition for Public Health, which keeps track of incidents in Haifa Bay. “It’s absurd that very dangerous substances kept and transported in the bay are not properly monitored, and every time there’s an unusual incident such as this one, we get the same reaction from the authorities: ‘Low levels of substance X were discovered’ or ‘They were unable to locate the source of the smell.’”

Amitai said the authorities regularly shrug off their responsibility for public safety. “It isn’t clear how the Environmental Protection Ministry and the [municipal] environmental protection association don’t do everything possible to have the best equipment for reliable monitoring of the pollution level of dangerous substances in real time,” she said.

Shmuel Gelhart, acting chairman of the association, said area residents could end up testing the air themselves if a similar incident happens again.

“As a result of two similar incidents last year in the greater Tel Aviv area and in Ashdod, where they were also unable to identify the gas and still don’t know its source, we suggested that the Environmental Protection Ministry provide the environmental associations with canisters that take samplings from the air when there is a smell, and analyze the samplings in a laboratory,” he said.