The law says environmental data is a matter of public record, but convoluted the bureaucracy stands in the way of access.
By Zafrir Rinat | Apr. 2, 2014 | 8:29 PM

There are many ways to measure environmental conditions in a country, and one of the most important measures is data availability. In Israel, efforts undertaken by activists and green organizations show that it is very difficult to obtain relevant environmental data from the authorities, even data regarding pertinent health concerns or regarding the allocation and use of natural resources, which of course belong to the public as a whole.

This week, Citizens for the Environment in the Galilee filed an administrative petition against the Environmental Protection Ministry in the Jerusalem District Court, arguing the ministry has violated Freedom of Information Law by failing to divulge data on the pollution caused by five factories in the Haifa area. Attorney Jameela Hardal-Wakim, who filed the petition and heads Citizens for the Environment along with Leora Amiti, is asking the court to order the ministry to release the information.

According to the petition, the organization approached the Environmental Protection Ministry numerous times with requests for information on the levels of pollution caused by the factories, but received only partial information with each request. One explanation given by the ministry was that releasing the information requires the factories’ consent. This is false, according to the organization, which claims the public is entitled to the information by law.

In response to inquiries, the Environmental Protection Ministry said the public can view all of the information disclosed to the petitioners on its website. “As soon as the request was received, work on gathering the data began, and the petitioner was given numerous documents and constant updates about the publication of the information. The information in question includes a great deal of comprehensive data, and unfortunately, the petition was filed before all of the data could be published, although we are in favor of making information accessible, and just a few months ago released data regarding pollutant emissions from all factories in Israel. In addition, we publish new data on air-purification facilities in real time.”

The organization sees the situation differently. “The ministry and its employees have evaded[Hardal-Wakim] for many long months, and caused her unnecessary expenses, harming her ability to work on behalf of the public,” reads the petition. “The ministry has failed, and continues to fail in its responsibility to provide information to the public.”

Another issue regarding availability of environmental information in Israel pertains to electricity, particularly to the Public Utility Authority, which is responsible for setting electricity prices as well as providing licenses to generate electricity, including licenses for facilities generating renewable energy.

A year ago, Dr. Itay Fischhendler, who researches environmental policy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, approached the Public Utility Authority and asked to review the minutes from authority meetings from the last few years. He said his research involved subjects like the advancement of renewable energy, and promised to present his findings to the authority before publication, as well as not to publish any documents he received. The Public Utility Authority refused his request, claiming that it does not disclose agendas or minutes as a matter of policy, and that responding to Fischhendler’s request would require contacting representatives from all of the organizations present at the meetings, as the minutes contain commercially and professionally sensitive information as well. The authority also said that providing Fischhendler with the data in question would require an exorbitant amount of resources, beyond what is required of the authority, even under Freedom of Information Law.

Fischhendler enlisted the aid of the Movement for Freedom of Information, which then approached the Public Utility Authority and pointed out that recently, minutes from meetings of both the Trachtenberg and Sheshinski committees have been published, and that the problem of disclosing commercial data can be overcome by selective editing and crossing impertinent information out. With regards to allocating large amounts of resources, the movement stated that the authority should have attempted to provide Fischhendler, with at least partial information. Further attempts to contact the Public Utility Authority did not lead to any developments, and roughly a month and a half ago, the Movement for Freedom of Information approached Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, and asked him to intervene. Shalom’s office was told that all of the OECD nations publish meeting agendas and minutes in full, so that the public can be made aware of important decisions in energy policy.

The Israel Union for Environmental Defense has also been forced to exert a great deal of effort in order to obtain information that should have already been available, regarding issues like the trace amount of pesticides in food, construction permits that allow local authorities to build at night, information on construction plans beyond the Green Line as well as other areas. Last year, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense published an article about the Freedom of Information Law, and pointed out the total lack of transparency that exists in Israel with regard to the use and allocation of natural resources. There is a great deal of data that remains unavailable to the public regarding the value of resources collected, agreements on payments for use of those resources, as well as tax credits for companies granted to use those resources, or even the amount of resources used. Information on offshore gas and oil drilling is particularly lacking.

Despite these difficulties, there has been an improvement in recent years with regard to publishing environmental data. The Interior Ministry publishes plans and background information, as well as minutes from meetings held by building and planning authorities. The Environmental Protection Ministry publishes pollution permits that are granted to factories through the clean air law. But these ministries aren’t doing anyone any favors. They’re fulfilling their basic responsibilities toward the public, and they must close the remaining information gaps as soon as possible.