Check Toxins Before Building, Court Says

It seems that regular citizens really can have an impact on the system and on the quality of life, as developments in Ramat Hasharon demonstrate. In that comfortable suburb just north of Tel Aviv, a small group of residents formed an association and set out to battle one of the most ambitious construction projects in the country.

The rub is that the project is supposed to be built on a site currently occupied by Israel Military Industries, explains the association, called Achla - which means "terrific" in slang as well as being a Hebrew acronym for "quality of life for Ramat Hasharon."

About 10 weeks ago Achla filed a motion to the Tel Aviv District Court, through the Israel Union of Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din), against the plan taking shape for the Israel Military Industries site. The court agreed that the plan could not be formally submitted to planning authorities until thorough soil and groundwater contamination surveys are conducted.

Last week, in a celebration scheduled to mark Earth Day, Ahla won the Green Globe award from Haim U'sviva, (Life and Environment), the Israel Union of Environmental NGOs.

In effect, by virtue of their success in court the concerned citizens of Ramat Hasharon may have shot themselves in the foot. If the Supreme Court rejects the state's appeal against the District Court ruling, there's a good chance that the development plan will be shelved for years to come. That means the government won't be able to realize its plans to relocate the Israel Military Industries plant.

Land for development is very rare in central Israel. If the new project doesn't get the green light then this prime piece of real estate, leaving aside the issue of the toxins introduced by the Israel Military Industries facility over decades of operation, will remain fallow and the state will lose the billions and billions of shekels that development of the land would have brought. And the good people of Ramat Hasharon will continue to live alongside the plant, which will continue to pollute the land and water.

The master development plan for the site calls for the construction of more than 20,000 apartments, 1.65 million square meters of commercial space and 2,000 square meters of green space in the area between the IMI plant, Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya, by the year 2050.

But the pollution is a snag, and it's not news. It was first reported more than 15 years ago, following a land survey. Additional surveys by the Water Authority in the last four years shows that the contamination is spreading. It has ruined wells in the area. Toxins are leaking into the soil.

The origin of the contamination is apparently past activity at the plant. Insofar as is known, the IMI facility isn't releasing contaminants into the land or groundwater any more. But there are hazardous materials on the site and the plant does continue to do things that could pose an environmental hazard.

The Israel Lands Administration and central Tel Aviv planning authorities, who initiated the grand development plan, find themselves facing a challenge unprecedented in sheer scope. Both have experience with sites zoned for housing that turned out to have some sort of environmental problem, contamination of some sort. But the areas in question were small. This is a giant stain on the land, spreading over thousands of dunams. The information about the type of contamination and manner of its spread is lacking, and Israel has no experience in handling contamination on this scale. At this stage the Israel Lands Administration has no clue as to how much the cleanup will cost. But apparently, we're looking at several billion shekels.

The Israel Lands Administration, together with the ministries of finance and of environmental protection, thrashed out a groundbreaking agreement about how to handle the befouled land. The agreement consists of all of three pages. It rules that the land in the Israel Military Industries complex should be divided into sections, and that the contamination be handled separately in each.

The agreement also sets a precedent regarding payment for the cleanup. The state will pay for surveys and rehabilitation of the land, but the developers will reimburse it for the costs. Those costs will be reflected in the prices for housing on the site, just as regular development costs are.

How much the cleanup will jack up housing prices remains to be seen.

Before the detailed plan for developing each section of land can be submitted to zoning authorities and before any land is sold to developers, another land contamination survey will be conducted the ministries and the Israel Lands Administration agreed.

They also agreed that sale of each section of decomtaminated land can commence without waiting for the remaining sections of the land to be rehabilitated, unless the Environmental Protection Ministry determines that the contamination from the foul land could spread back to the cleaned-up area.

One has to wonder how anyone can be certain how, where and when contamination will spread. Planning officials at the ILA claim that the divisions of land will be large enough to create a margin of safety between decontaminated areas and the ones that remain toxic. In any case, they add, monitoring will continue after construction as well.

Residents of Ramat Hasharon think that's nonsense and argue that the real extent of the contamination problem, and necessary cleanup, can only be known down the line.

Not content with legal action against the development plan, the residents asked Haim U'sviva to prepare a professional opinion comparing the state's position, according to which the surveying and cleaning up should be done in stages, against Achla's position that the survey and cleanup be done comprehensively.

An opinion was duly penned by Roy Kfir, an economist, who notes that the state's solution is more economical, insofar as direct costs of surveying and cleaning up are concerned. But he concluded that its savings will be offset by impairment of the public's faith, following moves about which there's no consensus. The upshot will be difficulty in selling the land, Kfir says.

The state is standing firm, however, as was evident in its appeal last month. "Making the plan's submission [to planning authorities] contingent on a detailed land and water survey, at this [early] stage, could doom the whole project," the state argued, adding that a comprehensive survey isn't necessary at this stage. "The outcome could be that the area remains as it is, with all the ramifications therefrom, including expanding contamination of the groundwater."

The planning authorities are equally adamant that abandoning the plan to convert the Israel Military Industries site into housing will be a body blow to the metropolis of Tel Aviv. There will be a social price to bear, too, they argue. Housing prices will simply climb higher and higher, turning Tel Aviv into a place where only the rich can afford to live.