PM Intervenes to Push Through 'Hazardous' Phosphate Mine

Investigative report reveals the deputy health minister's directive came after the PM interceded on behalf of the Ofer Brothers, which owns Rotem Amfert, the group behind the project.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has ordered a reexamination of his ministry's opposition to the construction of a phosphate mine near Arad.

According to an investigative report broadcast on Channel 10 this weekend, Litzman's directive came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu interceded on behalf of the Ofer Brothers, which owns Rotem Amfert, the group behind the project.

The proposal calls for building the mine on a 13,000-dunam (3,250-acre ) parcel of land within Arad municipal borders, south of Route 31 between Arad and the Bedouin town of Kseifa. The mine would be 1.5 kilometers away from Kseifa and a regional school, and 3.5 km. from Arad.

The plan has been shuttling between government ministries and agencies for a number of years. In February 2008, the Health Ministry conducted a study that found the proposed mine could endanger the health of area residents. The report, prepared by Dr. Micha Barchana, Director of the Israel National Cancer Registry, and Dr. Jonathan Dubnov of the ministry's Haifa District, concluded that such a mine could expose area residents to elevated levels of radon, as well as to injurious dust and high noise levels, potentially causing anxiety among residents. The authors unequivocally rejected the proposal to build a phosphate mine in close proximity to residential areas.

Rotem Amfert factory near Arad - Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

About two years ago, the Health Ministry sought a second opinion on the public-health hazards of the mine. In their evaluation, occupational health specialist Professor Joseph Ribak, who is director of the Medical Institute for Road Safety in the ministry, and Dr. Eli Stern of the Gartner National Research Institute, were more sanguine about the health hazards associated with the mine.

In light of the conflicting forecasts, senior ministry officials decided not to adopt an official position on the mine based on the information that it had and to turn to an external auditor.

Environmental Protection Ministry officials, meanwhile, expressed support for the project, saying its environmental effects would be negligible. Last March, a group of 276 area residents, including Bedouin, filed a motion in the Be'er Sheva District Court to suspend planning work at the mine site. In recent months, the Health Ministry decided to adopt the position of Barchana and Dubnov and to officially oppose the mine.

But according to the Channel 10 report, Netanyahu exercised his authority as minister of health to intercede on behalf of the Ofer Brothers and to order the Health Ministry to reevaluate the mine's potential health effects.

As a result, Litzman instructed ministry officials to commission another study from an outside party.The new study will be headed by Professor Yair Shapiro, the former CEO of Assuta Medical Centers.