Industry minister threatens to shut down the oil installation after a toxic leak that left three workers dead.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer threatened Wednesday to close down oil refineries in the city of Haifa, a day after a toxic leak left three workers dead.

“The whole area is like a nuclear bomb and I have been warning of the danger there for years,” said Ben-Eliezer, who before the current parliament oversaw the refineries in his previous post as infrastructure minister.
fuad – Yaron Kaminsky – November 4 2010

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.
Photo by: Yaron Kaminsky

Seven others suffered minor injuries as a result of the incident at the refinery owned by ORL, known in Hebrew by the acronym Bazan.

Initial investigations suggest the deadly leak occured in a pipe to a unit that burns off waste gas from the refining process.

The leak was halted after an automatic system pumped steam into the damaged pipe, replacing the toxic gas.

Environmental Protection Ministry officials said Wednesday that no decision on the plant’s future would be made until an investigation was complete.

In an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday morning, the ministry’s director general, Yossi Inbar, called the incident a “localized malfunction” that should not reflect upon the entire industry.

Inbar said that the refineries did not pose any risk to residents of the region, and at no point did the leak threaten environmental damage on a large scale.

Shlomo Katz, the ministry’s Haifa district manager, said the incident was a result of workers’ negligence. “They were not working according to proper procedure,” Katz said. “If they had been, [their deaths] wouldn’t have happened.”

Katz said the gases that hurt the employees were a mixture of toxins including highly poisonous Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a by-product of the refinery process.

Family members of the refinery workers who were killed claim they were operating under proper safety procedures, dismissing claims of negligence.

“Their foreman spoke with me this morning and told me that they were wearing gas masks. The leak was just especially powerful,” the family member said. “They have been renovating that area for a month, but no one had cleaned that pipe for a long time. As soon as they opened it, it began to leak, and it was extremely hard to control.”

The huge oil refineries in Haifa, one of Israel’s largest cities, have been a target of environmentalists and worried residents because of the potential for widespread damage and casualties in the event of an accident or an attack.

ORL has in the past come under fire for its environmental and safety record. In 2006 the company was ordered to pay a record fine of NIS 1.6 million for air pollution offenses, while several environment ministry investigations into company practice remain open.