The next disaster: a massive toxic spill.
By Zafrir Rinat

The Environmental Protection Ministry is ill-prepared to deal with an accident at an industrial plant holding hazardous materials, Minister Gilad Erdan acknowledged yesterday. It is his ministry that is responsible for directives dealing with the storage of hazardous materials, but as ministry professionals have long known, the ministry lacks the necessary resources to properly monitor handling of dangerous substances.

As a result, in the event of a major leak of dangerous substances, the ministry would find it difficult to assess the situation and deal with it. An incident involving quantities of chemicals such as bromine, chlorine or ammonia could result in hundreds or thousands of deaths within a radius as far as thousands of meters from the spill. All of these chemicals are present at high levels in the Haifa bay area.

In the aftermath of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the state comptroller issued a report in 2008 on home front readiness which also dealt with handling of dangerous chemicals, particularly in Haifa bay. This was the area of highest potential risk from chemicals during the war. The report said that the handling of dangerous chemicals near populated areas was highly problematic and the division of responsibility between the army’s Home Front Command and the Environmental Protection Ministry was unclear. At times, the report stated, this resulted in conflicting recommendations that caused delays and put civilian populations at risk. The two agencies failed to assess the situation and coordinate their efforts. Some of their directives were never carried out.

The state comptroller also found that there were more than 400 storage sites with dangerous chemicals that were not properly safeguarded, and only some of the sites have implemented the necessary steps since the report was issued.

The Environmental Protection Ministry convened a committee to examine the matter further. It included representatives from the Home Front Command, the Public Security Ministry, the fire department, the Manufacturers Association and environmental groups. The panel was asked to look at a scenario involving damage to an industrial plant that resulted in its total destruction and putting neighboring residents at risk.

The committee decided that the environment ministry should be responsible for overseeing the handling of dangerous chemicals. A number of recommendations were also issued involving preparedness by Haifa area plants. Due to a lack of personnel and other resources, the Environmental Protection Ministry has found it difficult, however, to implement the recommendations.

An interim report by the committee in 2007 noted that the Haifa Chemicals ammonia storage facility was particularly problematic, and that an accident there could result in injury to 90,000 people. The report said a serious incident in the Haifa bay could result in 100,000 injured within a 10-kilometer radius.