By Zafrir Rinat

The Environmental Protection Ministry lacks necessary authority and professional training and is largely dependent on outside lawyers in pursuing criminal charges on the ministry’s behalf, according to a study by Adam Teva V’Din (the Israel Union for Environmental Defense). The findings were released to coincide with today’s commemoration of Earth Day across the globe.

The study compared environmental protection enforcement in Israel with policies followed abroad. As in many other countries, Israel has a special police force, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s “Green Police,” devoted specifically to environmental protection, but the force was found to be much less effective than its counterparts in other countries.

According to the IUED report, “there is no relationship between the authority of an environmental inspector and that of a policeman.” The report also went on to say that “the authority [of the environmental inspectors] to arrest and detain people for questioning doesn’t exist at all, and the failure of a suspect to cooperate in most instances won’t result in any kind of sanctions against him. The Green Police do receive assistance from regular policemen, but if some of them call in sick, [the force is so understaffed] that this is enough to paralyze environmental protection enforcement in Israel.”

Lack of training

One of the report’s main recommendations is the establishment of a professional body that would specialize in environmental violations and would function as part of the State Prosecutor’s Office or the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Another weakness, according to the report, is the absence of professional training for enforcement personnel. The IUED says many of those involved in enforcement at the ministry are not appropriately trained to monitor environmental pollution or to investigate environmental cases in the same way this is done elsewhere around the world.

“Currently, the professional ability to file indictments that are not solely linked to clear cases involving an accident or a technical mishap is infinitesimal and does not provide any deterrence,” the report states. This is reflected, the IUED says, in the absence of any monitoring of data, in surprise inspections that are not conducted in a professional manner and in the absence of expertise in the area of laboratory analysis.

The IUED is also critical of the ministry’s reliance on outsourcing criminal complaints. Most of the complaints are handled by lawyers from the private sector who are appointed by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The study says this can result in conflicts of interest as the attorneys may also represent polluters in separate cases. The outsourcing of these legal services, the environmental group’s researchers contend, conveys the message that the State Prosecutor’s Office does not attach importance to environmental violations.

The practice may also inhibit the possibility of developing an effective group of professionals within the ministry. “The State of Israel,” states the report, “is not alone in permitting lawyers from the private sector to conduct criminal proceedings on its behalf. However, we have not found any other country that has completely privatized authority over complaints, particularly when it involves environmental criminality.”

In recent months, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) has been promoting legislation that would expand his ministry’s enforcement authority. IUED researchers say this is not enough and suggest establishing an environmental court, using the model of other specialized courts that handle cases involving matters such as labor laws or antitrust cases.

“The problem with outsourcing is that it creates a situation in which there is no accumulated professional knowledge within the ministry and decisions are taken that don’t reflect proper priorities,” says Arie Neiger, a lawyer who represents industrial plants in environmental cases. He added, however, that “the scope of enforcement activity against large plants is greater [in Israel] than in Europe and proceedings have been initiated in cases which would not have been pursued in Europe.”