Playing Dirty Politics

Strange as it may sound, Israel has no laws banning soil pollution.

Every real-estate developer driving along Derech Hashalom in Tel Aviv has probably gazed wistfully at the empty lot beside the road, near the border of Givatayim. A brief investigation will reveal that this compound was once the site of Magen military industries, and is designated for construction, but remains desolate due to an unresolved soil pollution problem.

In the past decade soil pollution has become a fundamental issue in the building market, since this problem has been blamed for delaying the development of many tracts of land in high-demand areas. Recently the Environmental Protection Ministry decided that legislation was needed to regulate the treatment of contaminated soil. Earlier this month the ministry submitted a bill to expand its authority and to obligate planning authorities and the Israel Lands Administration to include soil pollution when considering the approval of building plans or the leasing of land.

There are other huge compounds in high-demand areas that were once used by the defense industries, and which cannot be developed because the soil is contaminated. The most well-known sites are located in Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya. In other places, such as the industrial site beside Yigal Alon Street in Tel Aviv, the developers forged ahead with construction before the authorities had time to decide how to deal with a site suspected of contamination.

Ministry officials estimate there are at least 6,000 sites whose soil has been polluted. Many of these sites - industrial factories, workshops, gas stations and auto repair shops - operated in urban areas where there was no environmental law enforcement, and some sites are still operational and continue to contaminate the soil.

The new law being promoted by the ministry will be the first to explicitly ban soil pollution. In the event that soil contamination is detected, the law obligates the user (the owner, tenant or lessor) or the owner to halt the polluting activity and notify the public of the problem. The polluter will likewise be responsible for paying for a survey of the land to determine the extent of the contamination and for the soil's cleanup and rehabilitation. These surveys will be mandatory under various circumstances, including when noxious gases are emanating from the ground. Such gases have often been found at sites after foul odor complaints were filed, or after residents or workers complained of headaches or dizziness.

The new bill states that when soil contamination is suspected, the owner or the lessor must conduct soil tests and notify any buyer or future lessor about the contamination problem. If the soil is contaminated, the ministry can order the land registrar to record a caveat, which is to be canceled only after the soil has been treated.

Anyone leasing land suspected of soil contamination will have to test the soil at the end of his lease period. If the soil has become contaminated from pollution stemming from the use of the land during the lease, the lessor will have to clean the soil before returning the land to its owner.

The planning authorities will also have to change their procedures under the proposed legislation. If a building plan is submitted for an area with suspected or confirmed soil contamination, the plan will not be considered until the soil is tested. The authority will not even grant a permit for earthwork until the soil has been treated in keeping with the ministry's directives.

The proposed legislation will be a boon for companies that treat and rehabilitate soil, both in Israel an abroad. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, there are about 400,000 sites whose soil is contaminated, and this figure is expected to increase by 40% by 2025. Some European countries have enacted laws requiring land polluters to clean up their property before selling or leasing it, and the Israeli bill is based on the same principle. Even so, a large share of the responsibility in Europe is still borne by the public purse.

With this in mind, the proposed Israeli legislation includes the establishment of a fund for rehabilitating contaminated soil. The fund will receive a budget from the government, as well as the receipts from fines and levies collected from land users found guilty of polluting the soil.

"Soil contamination in Israel is quite widespread, caused by decades of industrial activity and a lack of specific laws banning soil pollution, unlike the case concerning water," states a memorandum sent by the ministry to the government. "This lack of awareness has resulted in the transfer of land without its being tested and without including a calculation for the cost of treating contaminated soil."

For this reason the bill proposes that users or owners of land polluted by previous lessors or owners will be eligible to apply to the fund for financing or reimbursement for the treatment and rehabilitation of the soil.

The new bill is the continuation of an initiative by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, which two years ago submitted a bill that did not garner government support. The union's deputy director general, attorney Amit Bracha, welcomed the bill, and even proposed some changes. The union's main complaint regarding the bill is that it does not make the ILA sufficiently responsible for land purification, but rather places the full responsibility on the land owners, lessor and tenants. Bracha feels that the law should require the ILA to gather data on land suspected of soil contamination and conduct risk surveys. The ILA should likewise be responsible for supervising land use and for filing indictments in order to prevent or halt soil pollution.

Bracha said the bill makes the granting of a building permit conditional on soil rehabilitation, but does not affect the actual approval of a building plan. This administrative process could prompt a developer to pressure the authorities to bypass or shorten soil rehabilitation procedures, so as to move forward with a plan that has already been approved. Furthermore, says Bracha, the details of the rehabilitation fund's sources of cash are still sketchy.