12/26/2012 02:28
State comptroller finds area of half-million people ‘has hazardous materials in air, water, land and sea.’

The Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection has done an insufficient job in managing a region that is filled with explosive, flammable and radioactive toxins, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira argued in a report released Tuesday.

One section in an overall report examining the affairs of various municipalities took a close look at the conduct of the Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection. Established in 1983, the association serves more than half a million people in nine local authorities: Haifa, Kiryat Ata, Kiryat Yam, Kiryat Bialik, Kiryat Motzkin, Nesher, Kiryat Tivon, Zvulun Regional Council and the Rahasim Local Council.

The association is responsible for overseeing air quality control and monitoring, hazardous materials supervision, noise prevention, environmental planning, industrial control, radiation monitoring, transportation pollution and sustainability education.

“Because of the operations of the factories, the area suffers from problems of concentrated contaminants, including hazardous materials in the air, in the water, on the land and in the sea, as well as problems of non-ionizing radiation, noise nuisances and the effects of dense transportation,” the report said. “This pollution is likely to have a detrimental effect on the health of residents of the area and of all areas of the North.”

In the months of September 2011 through February 2012, the State Comptroller’s Office audited the association, examining issues like supervision of hazardous materials management, improvement of air quality, reduction of air pollution from cars, prevention of noise and local law enforcement. The office worked to fulfill the audit in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the company Yefe Nof Transportation, Infrastructure and Construction.

The state comptroller found in the audit that several decades after its establishment, the association still has yet to clearly define its functions and powers. In addition, the association has failed to maintain a complete and current listing of all public inquiries it has received.

Likewise, the report found that the Environmental Protection Ministry was also failing to live up to its requirements in the region. For example, the Clean Air Law of 2008 went into effect in January 2011, making the ministry responsible for preventing air pollution – setting emission standards, monitoring pollution and providing reinforcement against harmful incidents.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, however, rejected a decision to declare areas within the association’s jurisdiction as areas affected by air pollution, and the audit concluded before the government approved a widespread national plan for the reduction of air pollution, the state comptroller wrote.

As far as motor vehicle air pollution goes, Shapira determined that this is the source of up to 58 percent of the region’s air pollution. The Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, however, has neither promoted advanced mobile air pollution monitoring nor submitted a proposal for cooperative air monitoring and enforcement activity to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Meanwhile, although a future Metronit bus rapid transit system will reduce congestion and save travel time, the vehicles driving in these lanes will still be running on diesel engines, which emit hazardous particles into the air, Shapira said.

In addition to the air pollution issues, the report has found the presence of hazardous materials in the Haifa Bay region to be particularly problematic. Regarding the factories in the region specifically, the report noted that the association has not yet set rules for the frequency of site reviews that the facilities must undergo, to examine the pollutants stored their as well as their risk levels.

Likewise, the Environmental Protection Ministry failed to prepare a schedule for regular visits in the years 2009 and 2010, did not receive periodic reports on the factories and did not prepare guidelines as to how the association should handle them, the report continued.

The region contains about 120 factories that require toxin permits and whose chemicals carry a high degree of risk.

The state comptroller specifically looked at a hydrocracking facility, in which the hydrocarbon molecules of heavy petroleum are cracked and broken into simpler, lighter fuels. While for the years 2010 to 2011, the local planning and building committee approved six building permits for the facility, the association never discussed the environmental effects of the hydrocracking to occur there, according to the report.

Particularly distressing to Shapira was the management of ammonia – a toxic and volatile gas that is vital to industry – at Haifa Chemicals. The Haifa Bay storage tank contained 12,000 tons of ammonia, used in more than 100 plants there without a proper business license. Although the storage container had been active for 26 years, by the time of the audit necessary measures had not been taken to prevent the public from danger, the report said, recommending a transfer of the tank to a less populated region.

Stressing that the office had found significant deficiencies in the operations of the Haifa Bay Municipal Association for Environmental Protection, the state comptroller emphasized that the organization must immediately clarify its specific responsibilities and functions. In addition, better coordination must occur among the association and the Environmental Protection Ministry, the local authorities, the area’s companies and the Interior Ministry, the report explained. In turn, it is the Environmental Protection Ministry’s responsibility to see that the association fulfills its duties.

In response to the report, the association said that most of the state comptroller’s notes have already been implemented since the audit.

“Although in the report, there are several points that have no direct relation to association activity, we intend to continue to examine the entire report, in depth, and implement the necessary measures – while striving constantly to improve the manner and quality of our service to the public,” the association said in a statement.

“The association’s conduct in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry has led to impressive achievements in reducing pollutant emissions and improving air quality in the region,” the statement continued, noting that the association will ensure the transfer of all required reports to the ministry, in a transparent manner.

Emphasizing its goal of protecting the environment from hazards, the association said that for decades it has been working to reduce air pollution, noise, radiation and other hazards in the region.

For its part, the Environmental Protection Ministry responded that the body responsible for defining the roles of municipal associations is the Interior Ministry, and that the Environment Ministry has no authority over the association.

In the last two years, however, the Environment Ministry has implemented a multi-year monitoring program for large plants in Haifa Bay, and at the ministry’s request, the association is now preparing a municipal program for air pollution reduction, the ministry said.

Regarding the Haifa ammonia storage tank, the Environmental Protection Ministry said the ministry demanded the installation of overhead protection on the tank, but that the Home Front Command deemed this type of shielding unnecessary.

Meanwhile, following a decision collaboratively made by Erdan and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, Haifa Chemicals announced that the ammonia container would be shut down within five years and transferred to a location in the South. Environmental impact studies for a new plant location will be forthcoming, the ministry added.

Maya Jacobs, director of the environmental association Zalul, criticized both Erdan and Simhon for failing to anchor their words in a government decision. The ammonia container must be closed as quickly as possible, she stressed.

“It is time that the government ministries hear harsh criticism and do what is required of them – enable the construction of an ammonia production plant in the South, make unnecessary the import of ammonia by ships and close a container that is dangerous and terrifying to the residents of northern Israel,” Jacobs said.