At first Miriam Levy heard a dim noise from the direction of the bay. It was definitely audible, but not loud enough to cause concern, and she continued to work at her computer. Just as her son came home from school and threw his bag on the floor, as he always did, she heard another noise which shook the house.
After a few minutes the smell came, becoming stronger and stronger. Their eyes began watering and they struggled to breathe, then the terrible screams from the street began. Miriam tried to close the windows and cover her face and her son's face, but their breathing grew heavier with every passing minute.
Scenarios like this appear in various expert reports on dangerous materials in Israel, including almost unimaginable events. Unprecedented disasters, leading to thousands of casualties, are liable to occur if there is an accident, fire, earthquake or missile attack on one of the chemical storage sites located worryingly close to population centers.
This case, like in the case of the wildfires that swept the Carmel region last week, is a "chronicle foretold" of negligence by the authorities that are supposed to prevent "the next disaster."
Living next to dangerous chemicals
A large number of factories handling dangerous materials are located near population centers, sometimes even in the heart of major cities, where relatively minor accidents have already necessitated evacuation of residents from the vicinity. Other factories are located in industrial and commercial zones, many of which are very close to crowded areas.
One example is the Bat Yam Industrial Zone, which is part of a residential area. Ramat Hasharon also contains a potentially dangerous factory zone, while Beersheba has a gas depot just a few meters from a commercial area. Zones like these include factories in the fields of medication which release organic compounds into the air; food, which release effluents containing organic material; and refrigeration, which include chemicals like ammonia.
The area with the potential for a major disaster is Haifa and the towns along the bay, due to the chemical depots and factories and the proximity to Haifa Port which handles hundreds of tons of dangerous chemicals each year. Experts say that if there is an accident, major fire, earthquake or missile attack, it could threaten the lives of thousands of people living in the area.
Such warnings have made the headlines recently, like in the issue of bromine which makes its way from the Dead Sea to the Haifa area in huge quantities. The Ministry of Environmental Protection revealed that a problem with storage or haulage of the dangerous chemical could affect some 350,000 people. It is not only Haifa Bay residents that are at risk – all population centers along the route could suffer.
Chronicle of negligence: Ammonia
The main potential disaster is undoubtedly the ammonia container in the bay. The storage facility, constructed in the 1980s, can hold up to 12,000 tons but generally holds some 8,000 tons of ammonia.
"Ammonia causes skin burns, and also affects breathing and lungs which can lead to suffocation due to the buildup of liquids," says Prof. Amos Notea from the Israel Institute of Technology, former atomic, biological and chemical officer for the Homefront Command. "At close radiuses death is relatively rapid, but the affects are felt at greater distances and can lead to death after a few days. Children and the aged tend to be affected more."
During the second Lebanon war, when Hezbollah rockets fell on Haifa, the scenario of a direct missile hit on the storage facility first arose.
"A hit on this container could cause the chemical to get as far as Acre and spread over the whole area of Tivon, Nesher and the nearby towns," Prof. Notea says. "This is a dangerous area. We also warn that the facility was built in 1986, and according to what is generally done around the world, it should have been replaced with a new container by now."
After the war, the Environment Ministry ordered a report on preparations against such risks. The report, put together by a committee led by Brigadier General (res.) Herzl Shafir, came to the conclusion that if there was serious damage, some 100,000 people could be affected, while a direct hit on the container could affect an area over a radius of more than 7 km.
The committee warned that an earthquake could destroy the storage facility, and noted the roof was particularly vulnerable. It recommended the roof be reinforced and a reserve facility constructed at the same time. It was also revealed that the factory is operating without a commercial license and that the facility was built without a permit.
The bottom line of the report, some of whose findings remain confidential, is that most of the factories in the area still have a long way to go before they will be prepared for an emergency. But most of the report's conclusions, like those of many other reports, are gathering dust in a drawer. Only a few steps have been taken to provide warning in case of an accident at the ammonia facility. Meanwhile the roof has not been reinforced and Haifa Chemicals, which runs the site, still has no license to do so.
Prof. Notea notes that work on the roof was not carried out because it is a complex and multi-dimensional project. "The sides of the container are relatively well protected, but the roof remains exposed to missile hits," he says. "It has an area of some 930 sq. m. and it's almost impossible to cover this in reinforced concrete."
In addition, nothing has yet been done about licensing and faulty supervision over Haifa Bay factories which the report noted in 2006.
"There are some 17 factories in the bay operating without firefighting licenses, and some 20 which have no toxic material licenses," says MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), chairperson of the Knesset Social-Environmental Lobby who has been active in this field for a number of years.
Who's responsible? All and none
The familiar symptoms of Israeli-style management, in which responsibility is divided among a large number of people, are also prevalent here. Today there are a number of bodies handling the issue of dangerous substances in Israel. Each body takes responsibility for its small part, and coordination between the various bodies is limited at best.
The list includes the Ministry of Environmental Protection which issues toxic chemical permits and is responsible for spot-checks and law enforcement in cases of pollution; the local authority which issues business operating licenses; the Interior Ministry which issues construction permits; the Association of Towns for Environmental Quality which is responsible for ongoing monitoring of air quality; the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor which is responsible for the factories at a ministerial level; and the Homefront Command which provides the factories with guidance about protection and emergencies.
They all talk of "productive cooperation" with other experts, but in fact there is almost no communication between them and nobody ascertains whether steps have indeed been taken to prevent disasters. The lack of coordination can be seen, for example, in permit issues: Factories handling toxic substances require various permits, yet the granting of each permit is not dependent on the granting of any other.
Thus, for example, the Interior Ministry may approve construction and the local authority may issue a business license, while the Environmental Ministry refuses to grant a toxic chemical permit because of operational faults. So the factory could operate with its business license while breaking the law regarding toxic substances, thereby putting the public at risk.
A factory handling dangerous substances can also ignore Homefront Command instructions regarding protection, but this won't stop it from operating. The Homefront Command has no legal power to enforce its instructions or supervise in cases of accidents except during emergencies, when it may well be too late.
The Environmental Ministry notes that efforts are being made to change the system. A pilot has been launched that includes firefighting requirements, toxic chemical requirements and Transport Ministry requirements, and there are plans to include requirements of other bodies too. But the Ministry also notes it is fighting a constant battle for lack of resources.
This unacceptable situation has caught the attention of the state comptroller too. In 2003 he issued a report which stated that the lack of coordination between the bodies was liable to be fatal.
In 2008, some five years after the state comptroller report and two years after the Shafir report, the government decided that one body should coordinate all toxic substance issues. The Ministry of Environmental Protection was chosen for the role, headed by Gilad Erdan (Likud), as national coordinator for toxic substances with the authority to develop ways to handle issues during everyday operation and during emergencies.
However, so far – two years after the decision – there have been many debates but few changes. An inter-ministerial committee was created to formulate a policy in various fields such as haulage of dangerous substances, but no policy has been formulated and it is not clear when this might happen.
After the bang, we'll tell you what to do
In the meantime, nobody is telling Israeli citizens what to do in case of accidents involving toxic substances. "If the ammonia container is damaged, the first thing citizens will notice is the strong smell," explains Prof. Notea. "People will flee in panic which will make the emergency services' work harder. Because residents are not familiar with evacuation plans, though won't know which roads to take."
The Homefront Command website also contains no instructions regarding such a scenario involving toxic substances, though it does include instructions in cases of missile attack. Israelis living or working near factories like these are not only unaware of the danger but will not know what to do in case of an accident.
"In the US and the EU, the authorities are obliged to inform the public of all dangers near their residential area," Prof. Notea says. "The public is party to the level of risk it is willing to accept and facilities are planned accordingly. In some places, special filters and masks are supplied. Here it simply doesn't exist."
"The public must be told what quantity of toxic substances is being stored, and options for action according to various scenarios must be detailed," he continues. "Citizens must know the significance of proximity to facilities like these. Maybe they are not willing to take such a risk upon themselves?
"Citizens must also know what they should do immediately, such as to enter sealed rooms and await instructions, not to try to escape and thus block the roads, not to start running to the hospitals or clinics but to wait for the emergency services to arrive, and not to drink or eat anything that has stood exposed."
The Environmental Ministry responds: "The issue is being advanced by a subcommittee which includes the National Emergency Management Authority, the Homefront Command, Israel Police, industry and local authority representatives, and other ministries, in order to find a suitable solution to the issue. At present, preparations include instructions to residents, instructions which will be given by the police and Homefront Command, and preparations by Israel Police for evacuation in time of need."
Meanwhile, as noted, the Environmental Ministry headed by Erdan has still not formulated any unifying policy and the schedule for providing the answers remains unclear.
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