In a precedent-setting ruling, a judge has closed a waste treatment site because of the groundwater contamination it could cause in the future.
By Zafrir Rinat | Jul.26, 2012

The millions of tons of urban waste, animal manure and sewage sludge produced in Israel every year could cause pollution and widespread health problems. The most environmentally sound way to deal with this is to transfer the waste to organized sites where the waste is used to produce organic fertilizers and thereby transformed into a resource that is beneficial to farmers.

However, these very same waste treatment sites may themselves become sources of air pollution and water source contamination while the various forms of waste are stored there. This could happen if there are no mechanisms to neutralize or prevent such blights. This presents a difficult challenge for the site managers and the authorities overseeing them.

Near Revadim and Kfar Menachem, kibbutzim within the Yoav Regional Council, is the Delila site, which falls under the jurisdiction of the adjacent Mateh Yehuda Regional Council and has been operating for several years. It is one of the main sites for treating liquid waste, which after undergoing various drying and ventilation processes is turned into compost. Lately it has also been receiving organic waste sorted by households for recycling. In total, the site has been handling 175,000 tons of waste and sludge annually.

Two weeks ago the Yoav Regional Council asked the state prosecution to shut down the site, which it claims creates unpleasant odors and causes serious health problems for the neighboring communities. The Yoav Regional Council argued that the site’s operations were approved by the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council without having first obtained the necessary permits from the planning committees.

The site’s manager, Yaron Shapira, says in response that it is not at all clear that the site is to blame for the odors as there are other facilities in the area that could be the source. He says the site is now in the process of obtaining permits to operate in closed buildings, to eliminate the possibility of creating an environmental hazard.

“Everyone wants green, but not next to their home,” Shapira added, referring to the Yoav Regional Council’s opposition.

According to the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, “the site is operating based on a permit for exceptional use whose legality is currently being reviewed. In the meantime, the developers have submitted a new plan that is being reviewed by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee.”

Cow droppings piling up

Not far from the Delila site is Sde Warburg, where there is a large cow manure treatment site. The site was built and is operated by Yoav Shiloni, and he handles cow manure from dairies in the area, which was removed in order to prevent environmental damage. Shiloni turns the manure into compost. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the site is operating without permits and the proper means for preventing pollution, and therefore the ministry is seeking to shut it down.

After a lengthy legal progress, Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Shlomo Friedlander ruled at the beginning of this month that the site should be closed until October because of the threat it poses to groundwater. Friedlander’s ruling is interesting and precedent-setting, as it states that there are instances when preventing damage to the environment should take precedence over upholding the right to freedom of occupation and enterprise.

The judge ruled, among other things: “It is enough for the individual’s business to logically be expected, even if only the future, to cause water pollution to justify issuing an injunction to cease this business’s operations.”

Friedlander ruled there is no debate over the fact that at the Kfar Warburg site organic waste is piling up in an exposed spot, with no means to prevent liquids from seeping into the groundwater. He relied on professional opinions presented in the matter by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The judge related to an expert opinion submitted by Shiloni that argued that due to the composition of the soil, the pollution has not yet affected groundwater there. He wrote comments about this issue that will certainly be cited in the future in legal proceedings relating to similar issues: “What does it matter to me if the pollution endangers the residents of the coastal plain today and what does it matter to me if it endangers their offspring decades from now? Even according to the opinion of the respondent [Shiloni], there is an ongoing process during which the pollutants leave the surface area in the respondent’s plant and make their way very slowly, but surely and irreversibly, to the groundwater.”

Shiloni said this week that he is working to uphold the court’s decision and is preparing to close the site, but at the same time is working to prevent the worst from happening. “My goal is to persuade the Environmental Protection Ministry that I’m working on organizing the site and obtaining the necessary permits for operating it. If I persuade them, I will try to get an extension from the court to operate the site until its final approval, and thereby spare the source of my livelihood.”

One of Shiloni’s explanations for the situation he got into is the bureaucratic delays that prevented him from obtaining a legal permit to operate the site. He stressed that he has addressed the issue of the contamination emitting from the dairy barns.

The Environmental Protection Ministry countered in court that Shiloni crossed a red line when he continued expanding the site’s operations and refused the chance to formalize its operations. The judge, for his part, was not convinced by the bureaucratic obstacles excuse and noted that even if the authorities dallied in their handling of the approval of the site’s operations, it was not possible to ignore the environmental risk it creates and therefore it should be shut down.