By Asaf Shtull-Trauring

The Telma food factory in Haifa has for years flooded Haifa Bay with some five million cubic meters of industrial waste per year – including about 10 tons of fat, two tons of ammonia, four tons of nitrogen and two tons of phosphorus.

A year ago, the company, owned by the international conglomerate Unilever, pledged to reduce this quantity by 90 percent as of this September. But yesterday, Unilever told Haaretz that it had received a one-year extension on this commitment, a claim the Environmental Protection Ministry denies.

“Because of delays beyond our control in obtaining the relevant building permits, we’ve received an extension to complete the project of reducing the outflow until September 2011,” Unilever said.

The extension on building a new, self-contained treatment system was given orally, by the ministry’s Marine and Coastal Environment Division, it added.

The ministry was stunned by this announcement and indignantly denied doing any such thing.

“No request for [such] permission was ever submitted, and no permission was ever granted,” a ministry spokesman said. “We’re familiar with the story about the delays in obtaining the building permits, but our demands are clear.”

The head of the marine division, Rani Amir, later echoed this denial. “No such thing ever happened,” he said. “The plant has no extension to continue the flow of waste.”

Zalul, an environmental organization, launched a public campaign against Unilever last night over its stated intention of ignoring next month’s deadline.

Unilever later issued the following statement: “Unilever Israel, as part of the worldwide Unilever corporation, is committed to, and abides by, some of the highest standards in the world in everything connected to preserving the environment, far beyond the Israeli norm. For the last 10 years, the company has invested many resources and much money in installing technology to reduce the plant’s impact on the environment. The Haifa plant abides by all the laws and regulations on [waste] flow to the sea and is under the constant supervision of the Environmental Protection Ministry.”

The ministry agreed that over the last two years, the firm has “invested great effort in improving the amount and quality of the brine sent into the sea.”

However, it added, it recently discovered several violations – though “not significant” ones – of Telma’s waste dumping permit and demanded that they be fixed.