Opinion

Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Neglect

This week, the cabinet finally agreed to discuss Haifa's ammonia tank crisis. But the report detailing its inherent national threat wasn't even mentioned.

The ammonia tank in Haifa.
Hagai Frid

The situation has deteriorated to the point where State Comptroller Joseph Shapira saw fit this week to appeal directly to the prime minister over the ammonia storage tank in the northern city of Haifa. This tank is of such great interest to Benjamin Netanyahu that Shapira was compelled to intervene, in order to warn him of the danger posed by the installation and to “encourage” him to take action.

Presumably, the report detailing the national threat inherent in the tank, written by 10 chemists from four academic institutions, including Nobel Prize in chemistry laureate Dan Shechtman, and issued in January, didn’t make enough of an impression on the prime minister.

Netanyahu evidently was not perturbed over the report’s warning that any damage to the tank, or to one of the ammonia transport ships from which the tank is refilled, would cause a disaster on a national scale. Even the fact that it wouldn’t necessarily take a missile to turn this danger into a reality, and that an earthquake could also do it, failed to terrify him.

In sum, what the comptroller told Netanyahu this week is that government ministries have failed in their handling of this issue. What he didn’t say, but can be read between the lines, is that “life itself” in Israel has once again been sacrificed on the altar of the prime minister’s current obsession — which, unfortunately, is not the ammonia tank.

This time, it was the state comptroller who issued the warning. But not long ago, it was Haifa’s local affairs court that issued a closure order against the tank. Yet even that didn’t bring the affair to an end, because the powers that be in Israel always manage somehow.

Haifa Chemicals, the company that owns the tank, appealed to the court for a stay of execution, and at the same time leveraged its contacts in the Environmental Protection Ministry to ask that the ship then on its way to fill the tank with ammonia be allowed to do so.

Nor do the Environmental Protection Ministry and the person who heads it, Zeev Elkin, come out of this story looking good. The ministry supported Haifa Chemicals’ request, arguing that more time was needed to prepare for the implications of the tank’s closure. Its staffers apparently forgot that they’re employed by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, not the Ministry of Environmental Neglect or the Ministry of Economic Protection.

Elkin went even further. He appealed to the attorney general, saying that the cabinet’s position — which was that the ammonia tank must be emptied in a safe manner — infringed on his authority. His authority to do what? To endanger Israel’s population?

Meanwhile, employees of the companies that are liable to be harmed by the ammonia tank’s closure are demonstrating, and rightly so. The Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, Eli Groner, said this week that “No one intended to send these workers home or to hurt 2 percent of our industrial exports.” Clearly nobody intended that, but on the other hand, neither has anyone done anything to take care of either the workers or our industrial exports.

This week, the cabinet finally agreed to discuss the ammonia tank crisis. It was reasonable to expect that, among other things, the discussion would touch on the chemists’ report and the risks it detailed. But the report wasn’t mentioned. And the only decision made was that the economy minister and the environmental protection minister would decide whether to extend the tank’s operations until June, or until August.

That is what we, the citizens, got — an unprofessional cabinet discussion at which the only decision was whether the danger should continue looming over us for another two months or four. And based on our knowledge of the current government, we can safely predict that it will continue to loom over us for long after that as well.