Bill to provide for division of responsibility between the environment ministry and the Water Authority; requires entities on whose land pollution is suspected to conduct environmental survey and clean up the land as necessary.
By Zafrir Rinat and Revital Hoval

The Water Authority is clashing with the Environmental Protection Ministry over a bill the ministry has proposed to help clean up polluted land. The issue is how far below ground the ministry’s jurisdiction ends and the Water Authority’s begins.

Other critics claim that the bill fails to sufficiently take the economic implications of the bill into account, saying it would involve major costs.
Oil refineries in Haifa – Tomer Neuberg

Oil refineries in Haifa
Photo by: Tomer Neuberg

On Wednesday, National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau demanded that Gilad Erdan, the environment minister, delay the bill’s progress, saying it infringes on the Water Authority’s powers. Landau said the bill would also harm the public’s interest in having its water sources protected.

Against this backdrop, the Water Authority announced this week that it was scrapping procedures developed less than a year ago to address its disputes with the environment ministry. Coordination was particularly important because the two ministries had been giving companies conflicting directives on how to fight pollution.

The bill would require entities on whose land pollution is suspected to conduct an environmental survey and clean up the land as necessary. The bill would also provide for a division of responsibility between the environment ministry and the Water Authority, since ground pollution can seep into the water table.

The legislation could have major financial implications for the state because a substantial portion of the country’s polluted land is held by the state, including by Israel Military Industries. It would also have significant implications for refineries and major oil companies whose land has been polluted.

According to an estimate commissioned by the environment ministry from a consulting firm, more than 3,000 locations around the country might be polluted. The cost of a nationwide cleanup is estimated at around NIS 9 billion. Such an effort, however, could increase the value of the surrounding property by more than NIS 30 billion.

The Water Authority said the bill would give the environment ministry jurisdiction over pollution several hundred meters underground, appropriating powers over water resources that should be the Water Authority’s responsibility. The authority said the environment ministry would be taking upon itself issues upon which the ministry lacks the expertise. The authority also questioned the estimated cost of the cleanup, saying it did not include the cost of cleaning up ground water.

The Environment Ministry said in a statement the bill addresses the division of responsibility between the two agencies in a manner that is consistent with the agreement reached on cooperation between the ministry and the Water Authority. The ministry confirmed it had commissioned an assessment of the bill’s economic impact, and also consulted with a number of entities on its preparation. None of then questioned the estimate.

Haifa residents breathe easier

In related environmental news, the air quality around Haifa Bay has improved substantially in the month since the firm Oil Refineries ‏(known as Bazan in Hebrew‏) switched to natural gas from fuel oil at its Haifa-area facilities. According to figures obtained by Haaretz, the improvement apparently includes a major decline in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide in the air.

The data, from the Haifa District Municipal Association for the Environment, showed a decline of between 63 percent and 81 percent between June 2010 and June this year in nitrogen oxide around the Haifa neighborhood of Neveh Sha’anan and Check Post, a major intersection.

A portion of the Oil Refineries complex has yet to be converted to natural gas, but the process is underway and is expected to improve air quality further. Oil Refineries subsidiaries Carmel Olefins and Gadiv Petrochemical Industries are also expected to make the switch.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has designated Haifa Bay as an area with one of the country’s worst air-pollution problems. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said the switch by industry to natural gas is giving Haifa cleaner air than most of the country.