Residents unconvinced by developers assurances that operations will pose no risk to surrounding population.

A rectangular slab of green grass sandwiched between the Ben & Jerry’s and Tnuva factories has become the object of ever-increasing tension between those aiming to build a natural gas plant there and residents resolute to stop its construction.

The prospective natural gas plant in question is that of IPM Be’er Tuviya, slated to hold 35 tons of natural gas in the Be’er Tuviya Industrial Zone – located just north of Timorim and south of Kiryat Malachi. In addition to this quantity of gas, the plant is also supposed to contain 9,000 cubic meters of diesel, and pipes carrying an additional 170 tons of gas to the area.

While residents have been actively protesting the construction of the natural gas plant in the industrial zone for several years, November’s Operation Pillar of Defense – during which several devastating rockets hit the area – jolted them even further. Not only would the natural gas plant itself thereby pose a serious risk, but so would the facility’s proximity to open-air ammonia and chemical tankers, the residents say. An explosion at the natural gas plant could cause what the residents describe as a “domino effect,” a possibility that the company vehemently rejects.

“The containers are wide open; they are not protected or shielded,” the leader of the residents, Adva Dror, tells The Jerusalem Post during a visit near the site last week. “They can be easily damaged.”

While factories like Tnuva and Ben & Jerry’s have ammonia tanks, other plants along the perimeter of the planned site store chemicals such as highly flammable acetone and various pesticides, she explains.

Those in favor of the project have argued that this natural gas plant is no closer to local populations than many other power stations, such as those in Ashkelon or Tel Aviv – which are also vulnerable to rocket hits.

Yet Dror stresses that this situation is different because not only is the factory close to the public and in rocket range, but it is also located right next to an ammonia tank.

“The necessity of the plant is different,” Dror adds.

“In Ashkelon you already have the coal power plant, so it’s right next to it and is supposed to decrease the pollution.”

The Be’er Tuviya Regional Council area, in comparison, has very little existing pollution to curb, she explains.

“Basically, the main polluter here will be the gas plant,” Dror says.

Be’er Tuviya and Kiryat Malachi residents are not against erecting natural gas plants per se, she notes, stressing that they have generated five alternative locations – two of which are right behind Timorim.

The NIS 2 billion gas plant is slated to have a total capacity of 428 megawatts – approximately the size of Reading in Tel Aviv – with steam and natural gas turbine combined cycle, according to the developers.

The group responsible for building the plant is Israel Power Management 3000 (IPM), 20 percent of which is held by a group of investors and 80 percent by the company Triple-M, which purchased its share of the project from Shikun V’Binui two years ago, firm representatives told the Post. The project first received Be’er Tuviya Regional Council support in May 2006, which was followed by a production license authorization by the government in April 2007 – after the plans were deemed a national infrastructures project, the company says. All preliminary zoning processes were concluded in February 2008, and the company presented its plans to the National Infrastructures Committee on November 30, 2012.

Although in January the Southern District Committee for Planning and Building recommended that the project not yet receive approval, the National Infrastructures Committee decided to okay the plan last week.

In response to the fact that regional council head Dror Shore had voiced support for the site in a 2006 letter, a council spokeswoman said that Shore has invested much of his time persuading businessmen and industrialists to set up their operations in Be’er Tuviya, which has resulted in a successful increase of residents’ income.

“In a preliminary meeting with the developers, like in any meeting, the mayor welcomed the anticipated income,” the spokeswoman said.

“After studying the safety aspects related to the establishment of the power station, he decided to propose to the developers alternatives elsewhere in the council due to the concentration of hazardous substances in the designated area. It is important to note that all officials have announced that there is no risk in establishing a power plant in this area.

“Despite the decision to build the station, the mayor believes that it is necessary to shield the area and handle the concentration of dangerous chemicals at the site,” the spokeswoman continued. “Until these actions are implemented, we cannot establish such a station in this designated area and, therefore, the council will submit a petition to the High Court of Justice.”

In the face of vows from the regional council and the residents to file such petitions, IPM representatives say they hope to reach financial closing on the plant by the last quarter of 2013 and begin operations by the end of 2015. Getting their gas plant under way will help contribute to the country’s energy security as well as provide competition with the Israel Electric Corporation, a goal promoted by the Energy and Water Ministry. The government, the company said, has encouraged IPM to construct a facility in an industrial zone.

While other private natural gas facilities are moving forward rapidly, however, development at the Be’er Tuviya site has been slowed, despite the fact that many of the factories in the industrial zone have already signed agreements with IPM to purchase gas directly from their future facility, the company explained.

This site is optimal, according to the company, due to government desires for constructing gas facilities in industrial areas over agricultural or nature zones, as well as its proximity to the electricity grid and the natural gas transmission lines. This location was chosen after reviewing many alternatives and after the National Infrastructures Committee demanded that the company conduct a comprehensive environmental risk analysis, the firm stressed.

If a rocket was to hit the Pressure Reduction and Natural Gas Metering Station (PRMS), it could be dangerous for up to one minute, and afterwards, the heated gas would rise straight up as a flame, rather than creating a domino effect among the adjacent chemical containers, the company says, noting that the Defense Ministry has also confirmed that no risks exist. The PRMS itself would be owned by the government, not by the company, and would remain financially insured. However, the company will take precautions and building a protective shelter around the PRMS and surround the pipelines with concrete.

In response, residents argue that another report by an investigator for the National Infrastructures Committee itself demonstrated that the gas could quickly cool and drop down onto to the chemical containers.

“You can see from around the world the area of the damage from accidents at gas stations,” Dror said.

“You can see who it spreads all around.” So dangerous is the area, Dror contends, that during the November conflict, the government evacuated portions of the ammonia from the Be’er Tuviya Industrial Zone.

Despite having much less ammonia than the container in the Haifa region, the site faces similar vulnerabilities as the northern container – which has been seen as a potential target for Hezbollah, she adds.

“Every time there’s a situation in Gaza, the emergency level here rises,” Dror says. “Every time there is a leak or fire in one of the plants here, they automatically close the entire industrial area.”

Tsachi Yeshurun, another concerned citizen from neighboring Avigdor, goes so far as to call the prospective natural gas plant a “detonator.” An accident at a secluded power plant would be one thing, he, says, but such an incident at a facility situated in this industrial zone is another situation entirely. “I’m not saying we welcome the air pollution, but it’s not the air pollution we are fighting,” he says.

A risk analysis conducted by American firm GexCon US, Inc. on behalf of the residents determined that the IPM environmental assessment is unacceptable and disregards the occurrence of intentional events like rocket attacks. This same report alleges that Israeli regulations regarding power plant establishment are not up to par with international standards.

Dror and Yeshurun call upon the government to conduct environmental risk assessments that examine the potential dangers of the site during wartime and not simply during routine life.

“If you really think that this is the place that the Israeli government cannot live without it, show us the real risk,” Dror says. “Don’t tell us there’s no risk or cover things up.”

While the regional council had formally proposed seven alternatives, all have been rejected, Yeshurun says. This has prompted the residents to offer five of their own suggestions, with the first two in the fields of Timorim – one south of the water reservoir and the other southeast of the village and next to a biogas plant that is already zoned for power generation. The third alternative is in Kedma at an abandoned quarry, and the last two are farther away, near Tzafit, Dror explains.

“How can you expect the company which has easy land available to them to objectively check the other alternatives?” Yeshurun asks, accusing the National Infrastructures Committee of not acting as a proper regulator.

The alternative suggested in Timorim next to the biogas plant would be the optimal solution, but the developers have rejected this option as being too close to Ayala Stream – despite its very close proximity to gas lines and the electricity grid, Dror says. The next most favorable option would be the Kedma site, as converting a zone from quarry to power station land is simpler than doing so in agricultural fields, she explains.

Environmental advocacy group Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union Environmental Defense) in the past assessed the situation and became involved with the residents and a public partnership that the original Shikun V’Binui owners had launched, explains Keren Halperin, the organization’s legal department head.

However, since the land was transferred to the new owners, Adam Teva saw that the residents were wellorganized and that the regional council was working against the plan, so the group left the picture, Halperin says.

While the residents say they fear the safety risks of the plant, they also warn that the facility’s establishment could hamper economic growth. For example, northwest of Timorim and north of the industrial zone, a commercial area with new ballrooms and restaurants is being developed, Dror says, fearing that these projects will slow with the emergence of the gas plant.

“This area is the economic future of all the residents here and in Kiryat Malachi,” she says, stressing that the area’s commercial services are quite low. “Putting this gas plant here will totally kill the development of this area.” Likewise, Kiryat Malachi – a city of 23,000 mostly low socioeconomic residents – was slated to see the construction of 1,700 new apartment units in an expanded 55-hectare (136-acre) area to its south. However, due to the plans to build the gas plant, “no contractor wants to go into the tender,” according to Moshe “Shimi” Shimon, a former Kiryat Malachi mayor.

In response to all of the residents’ allegations, executives at IPM say that they prefer to leave the decisions in the hands of the National Infrastructure Committee and not provide further comment.

“All the arguments and objections of the residents were brought in full to planning officials of the state, which, after receiving our response, approved the establishment of the natural gas energy plant – to be established on the basis of the high technological and safety standards and with aspects of sustainability, in accordance with government policy and in a professional and transparent manner.”