'The Polluter Pays,' as Ban on Plastic Bags Passes First Reading

New law significantly toughens Israel's various environmental protection laws.

The Knesset on Wednesday passed a "polluter pays" law, which represents yet another stage in the 17th Knesset's "green revolution." The new law significantly toughens Israel's various environmental protection laws by, inter alia, adding an entire list of new penalties, such as the imposition of administrative financial sanctions that could, in some cases, be as high as NIS 2.4 million; the requirement that the polluter restore the status quo ante; and the levying of a fine equivalent to the economic advantages the polluter has gleaned through the particular instance of pollution.

The law was presented as a proposed bill by 19 members of Knesset, headed by the leaders of the Israeli parliament's environmentalist lobby, namely, Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad). Among the pieces of legislation that the polluter-pays law updates are the one concerning the protection of the nation's beaches and the forestry ordinance passed by the British Mandatory government in Palestine in 1936.

The fine for uprooting trees, setting forest fires or building a dam in a forest has been made much stiffer and has been raised from 100 Palestinian pounds (as specified in the above ordinance) to NIS 49,800; in addition, the criminal penalties for various forestry-related offenses have been made severer, with a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

The new law also establishes an entire battery of innovative punitive mechanisms: "A mechanism of administrative financial sanctions to punish polluters. The sanctions range from a minimum of NIS 50,000 to NIS 2.4 million. Heavy sanctions will also be imposed on those who pollute the sea and those who violate the law pertaining to hazardous substances. The level of the particular financial sanction will be determined in accordance with the polluter's volume of business. For every additional day of pollution, 5 percent will be tacked on to the polluter's original fine. MK Khenin explains the need for the sanctions mechanism as stemming from the fact that criminal proceedings sometimes take an inordinately lengthy amount of time and frequently end in a plea bargain.

"Profit-blockage. Courts of law will be empowered to require polluters to repair the damage at their own expense and to restore the status quo ante. In cases where polluters fail to do so, the state will be authorized to repair the damage, such as oil contamination of the sea, and to charge the polluter double the cost.

The Clean Air Law, passed by the Knesset last week, creates a mechanism of emissions permits that will enable the levying of a fee for all those who have been authorized to pollute the environment. In accordance with a proposal of MK Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor), who chairs the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, the committee has included in the polluter-pays law a clause that provides the law protecting the country's coastal environment with a similar mechanism for levying fees from authorized polluters.

Until recently, the law included a section that made senior managers of organizations, corporations and government agencies personally responsible for their organization's pollution activities. However, at the last minute, that section was excluded from the new law, because the law's champions wanted to have the bulk of the law passed by the Knesset in its summer session. The intention is to leave passage of the section of the law concerning personal responsibility to the winter session.

MK Khenin says that the "polluter-pays law effectively tackles the basic problem of environmental hazards. Up until now, economic interests in Israel made it worthwhile financially to pollute the environment. The new law now makes environmental pollution economically disadvantageous." According to MK Melchior, "by attacking the pocketbooks of polluting companies, we can arrive at a situation where our earth, water and air will be cleaner."

Green Course, a college student environmental organization in Israel, expressed satisfaction that "polluters, and not the public, will be forced to pay." Pines-Paz has promised that the "Knesset will fight for a sufficiently large budget for the Environmental Protection Ministry so that the new laws can be fully enforced."