Learning From the Beirut Disaster

Haaretz Editorial
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A picture shows destruction at Beirut port on August 5, 2020 in the aftermath of a massive explosion in the Lebanese capital.Credit: AFP
Haaretz Editorial

The circumstances of the blast in the Beirut port that led to extensive injury, loss of life and huge property damage, are still not known. But one thing is clear, and that is that large amounts of hazardous and explosive materials were stored in a port near a major city. That is a reality in many countries, including Israel. The tragic disaster in Beirut is a reminder of the need for cautious, wise policy in the use of hazardous materials that are still essential in many industries.

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Hazardous materials pass through both of Israel’s major ports, Haifa and Ashdod. Some of them are stored in the ports and some pass through them. Among them are chlorine, bromine and of course ammonia, which is still imported to Israel and transported to factories to manufacture fertilizer. The risk to the people of these cities can be expected to increase with the significant expansion of the ports’ activities in the coming years. In the case of Israel, the risk is associated not only with accidents but with security incidents, including rocket fire at these hazardous stockpiles.

To deal with this situation, the state must expedite and institute a policy of risk management, which experts have recommended in surveys in a number of areas following the establishment of a committee that examined the situation after the Second Lebanon War. These are steps intended to separate concentrations of hazardous materials from civilian populations, or to improve protection of these materials, for example, by burying them instead of storing them in above-ground tanks.

One of the greatest focuses of risk in Israel, the ammonia tank in Haifa, is no longer in service. But there are still small ammonia tanks in the Haifa Bay, and the transport of this material will continue to be a risk in the future. As for the bay itself, the continued presence of the petrochemical industries in this area should be given serious consideration, because even improved protection cannot totally prevent accidents or attacks from afar. Although the risk survey by the Environmental Protection Ministry concluded that there is no unacceptable risk to the pipeline from these factories, in the case of Israel, in comparison to international criteria, harsher scenarios must be taken into account and the risk must be moved as far away as possible.

The most important step is to stop the use of all non-essential materials and move to safer substitutes. The most outstanding example of this is fuels, which cause serious environmental harm and are a risk in case of fire or leak. The move to renewable energy will release Israeli society from at least some of the risks created by these fuels and prevent terrible disasters like the one suffered by our neighbor to the north.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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