03/07/2012 23:39
Delay despite pressure; exposure to chemical could cause skin burns and sudden death, activists say.
Boy watches as mom is fitted for a gas mask By Jim Hollander / Reuters
Environmental activists launched a “Haifa Gulf War” on Wednesday morning outside the city’s municipal court, where a judge was leading a discussion about the municipality’s lawsuit against the operators of an ammonia tank in the bay.

The activists, predominantly from the Green Course movement and the Coalition for Public Health, held signs projecting their anger that a Haifa Chemicals ammonia tank is still sitting in the bay, putting the public at constant risk of exposure to toxins.

While ammonia is necessary to many household and industrial cooling processes, the environmentalists argued that the tank must move to an unpopulated place, where a leak would not cause so many residents to be in instant danger.

Cloaked in a gas masks and protective wear, one activist held as sign that read: “I am already protected from ammonia. And you?” During the morning’s discussion, the judge heeded the request of the Haifa Chemicals lawyer to postpone making a decision for two more months, which she said would also allow more time to assess evidence about the container’s safety risks, according to Green Course. The two sides will meet with the judge again on May 9.

While it would be difficult to ignore the statements of Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, the court must decide about the container’s removal on the basis of hard evidence only, the judge said during the hearing.

“The hearing took place symbolically on the day of the Fast of Esther, and representatives of Green Course demonstrated under the slogan of ‘Gulf War,’ which became the official name of the campaign for their struggle to remove hazardous substances from the Haifa Bay,” a statement from Green Course said.

Green Course members were not pleased with the judge’s decision to delay the process another two months.

“We’re very disappointed because we hoped that the judge would decide today based on the decisions made by government officials like Gilad Erdan and Shalom Simhon,” Aviv Zalts, spokesman for Green Course Haifa, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday afternoon.

Acknowledging that ammonia is very important to many industries, Zalts explained that if a spill does occur then “it will cause sudden death to whoever is close to the leak” and will burn the skin of many others in the surrounding area.

“It’s a very, very toxic material and it shouldn’t be around so many people that live around Haifa where so many people are,” he said.

A better place, which has already been recommended by government officials, would be an open area in the middle of the Negev that is not so densely populated, according to Zalts.

The jointly led Green Course and Haifa Municipality struggle received additional support last week from Erdan and Simhon, both of whom argued that the ammonia container must be removed from Haifa’s harbor. After a meeting together, the ministers decided that they must find a quick solution for this issue, and that while ammonia is critical to cooling processes, the risks of leaving the tank in Haifa were too great.

“The Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry will work in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry to find a proper layout that will match the industrial needs on one hand, and environmental and safety components on the other hand,” Simhon said.

“The importance today of an environmentally friendly industry is clear to us.”

While the ammonia tank is actually similar to those in other developed countries, in terms of its size and proximity to population centers, Israel has certain security threats that these other nations do not have, the ministers decided, ultimately concluding that the container must move. Erdan referred back to the Second Lebanon War and reiterated the need to make sure hazardous materials are safe from war, hostilities, earthquakes and other incidents.

“Operations of the ammonia container cannot come at the expense of public safety,” Erdan said. “I will continue to promote policies of removing hazardous industrial plants from nearby residential areas, thereby enabling proper functioning of the factories while minimizing risk to the population.”

Despite Wednesday’s delay, Zalts said he was confident that the judge would eventually make a decision in the environmentalists’ favor.

“The more time the more danger, but we think that at the end the court will decide to get it out of there,” he said.