No Faith in the State

During the brief interview he granted to the press ahead of cabinet discussions on planning laws, Eyal Gabai, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, promised that the government welcomes public discussion on development plans. "If we don't involve the people in the planning process, opposition to the plans will simply come back to us via other paths," he observed.

Indeed. The avenues through which the public has been expressing its opposition to development plans have become widely varied of late. People have been bitterly fighting against construction plans they fear will impair their quality of life, or at least the value of their property. Nor are they settling for the formal objection process any more. They have diversified, now using strategies like petitions disseminated through the Internet, lawsuits and even demonstrations.

All too often, residents of a given area encounter different responses from the various ministries regarding the potential hazards involved in development plans. The Health Ministry, for instance, often supports objections, reinforcing concerns about a given plan. Other ministries, however, may not even lend an ear.

A few weeks ago, a group of 276 residents of Arad, including Bedouin dwelling in the area, filed a suit at the Be'er Sheva District Court through the offices of Effi Michaeli. They hope to foil a plan to mine phosphate at a site just 3.5 kilometers from the desert city. The company seeking to mine the area has been identified as Rotem Amfert - which belongs to Israel Chemicals, which in turn belongs to the Ofer family company Israel Corporation.

The residents argue that the operations at the phosphate mine would harm their health, and therefore the planning process should be blocked. Their argument is based on expert opinions, including some ascertained from the Health Ministry. These opinions state that the mine could increase mortality in the region due to heightened air pollution. Two experts calculated that the mine would increase regional mortality by 4.25%, which translates into seven more deaths a year.

And how does distrust in the government come into play? The Environmental Protection Ministry approved a trial run of the phosphate mining operation and a study of its impact, despite the expert opinions given regarding harm to the residents' health.

"The Environmental Protection Ministry is agreeing to a trial on 45,000 residents of the city of Arad and its surroundings, despite the hard-worded expert opinions that anticipate a real increase in mortality and illness," wrote Michaeli in the lawsuit.

North of Arad, at Moshav Mesilat Zion, another public battle is brewing - this time against a plan by Israel Railways. Residents are concerned about the ramifications of moving dirt, dug up to build the rail, to an abandoned quarry next door to the settlement.

The battle is being spearheaded by residents who bought homes on the moshav for the sake of the clean air and quality of life, and are being supported by the long-time residents who descend from the Jews of Cochin (an area in India's southwest). They have an inborn vulnerability to pulmonary conditions, which worsen under exposure to air pollution.

The Health Ministry recently reinforced the locals' fears when it advised the National Planning and Building Council that it opposes the plan to move surplus dirt to the quarry until steps are taken to safeguard local residents' health. The ministry claims that the environmental test of the effects of moving the dirt had been based on a standard that is, simply, too lax. If the plan is carried out, the health of the residents of Mesilat Zion could suffer, the ministry warned.

In other cases, the objections to development plans are also based on landscape. Take the strong objections the people of the Carmel coastal region have to the construction of a natural gas terminal by Dor Beach.

The terminal is supposed to receive natural gas from the Tamar field, a gigantic reservoir of gas discovered some 90 kilometers off the Haifa shoreline, in the Mediterranean seabed.

Opponents to the terminal include the residents of Zichron Yaakov and the surrounding areas, who argue that it would ruin the unique character of the region, not to mention cause environmental damage to the beach.

Moving along to the Judean plain (Shfelat Yehuda), we find a bunch of people horrified by an IEI Corporation plan to extract the last bit of oil from shale in the area. The fossil fuel has been found in shale at a depth of more than 300 meters in the ground, and IEI conducted tests to gauge the commercial potential of extracting the oil from the rock. Local residents are worried this may cause harm to the area, large swathes of which have been declared national nature reserves.

"We intend to do everything in full coordination with the planning authorities and the Environmental Protection Ministry," Dr. Yuval Bar-Tov, a geologist and manager of the company, vowed last week. We will do everything necessary to protect the environment, he added.

But when it comes to trash incineration facilities, public concern about development plans impacting the quality of life reaches unparalleled heights. The anxiety about air quality is keen.

In recent years, bitter public battles have been waged against trash incineration plants in the Western Galilee, the area of Beit Shemesh and against a plan to build a plant that would incinerate solid sewage west of Rishon Letzion.

Over the course of a conference on waste management, held at the site of the Hiriya garbage dump, Yossi Inbar - director-general of the Environmental Protection Ministry - admitted that public opposition is a major reason why no large waste incineration plants have been built so far.

No question about it, the ministry is paying the price of the distrust the public has developed toward government institutions, which to date have done a poor job of protecting civilians from environmental hazards. There is also the NIMBY factor: It is natural for people to prefer that a potentially hazardous facility be built somewhere else, just Not In My Back Yard. Let it endanger somebody else.

The depth of the public's crisis of faith in Israel is glaring when we compare it to the situation in Europe. There, the public has far greater trust in the state's environmental agencies, and we find a great number of trash incineration facilities burning away.

At the conference on waste in which Inbar participated, Rosaline Heiling, who manages a large waste incineration facility in Frankfurt, Germany, delivered an address. She says the plant serves more than a million people. Like similar plants in the Netherlands and Switzerland, it isn't located outside the city: it's right at the heart. Some of these plants are even located inside residential areas. Yet property values, even right next door, show no sign of falling despite the proximity to the facility. That is a true demonstration of faith.