LAST UPDATED: 05/14/2014

Shapira says impact of vehicle air pollution particularly severe because pollution emitted at ground level, near people, animals and plants.

The national program to prevent air pollution is drastically under-budgeted, and may be failing to protect the public’s health, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira said in a report released on Wednesday.

“The impact of air pollution originating from vehicles is great, particularly because the polluters emit at a ground level and are near places where people, animals and plants are found,” he wrote.

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Shapira examined the Environmental Protection Ministry’s efforts to reduce air pollution caused by vehicles from March through October 2013, as well as the contributions of the Transportation Ministry and relevant local authorities. The growth in the number of vehicles in the country – 2.76 million as of 2012 – and resultant traffic congestion only aggravate the problem, the state comptroller said.

Under the Clean Air Law (2011), the government had until January 2012 to approve a multi-year, comprehensive national air pollution prevention program. The ministry prepared a NIS 690 million plan at the end of 2011, with an estimated economic benefit of NIS 10.1 billion. Yet the government delayed discussing the plan due to funding disagreements between the Finance and Environment ministries, the report said.

Only in August 2013 did the government approve a plan, budgeting just NIS 140m. for its implementation.

The new plan problematically has pollution reduction targets at about half of what they originally were, Shapira wrote.

More than 100 air-monitoring stations operate throughout Israel, but via external bodies, according to his report. Because the environment minister had not ordered the establishment of a national air monitoring system by the time of the audit, the ministry was still incapable of presiding over local monitoring.

Despite the importance of determining air quality values for pollutants specified by the Clean Air Law, the ministry had set few values by the time of the audit. The report specifically criticized methods used to measure vehicle emissions of nitrogen dioxide, which is particularly harmful to human health.

In January 2011, then-environmental protection minister Gilad Erdan received the authority to designate specific areas as damaged by air pollution and demand the preparation of action plans, if it was caused by transportation.

While Erdan proposed declaring Gush Dan, Haifa and Jerusalem polluted zones, he eventually granted the cities time to prepare preventative plans before an official declaration, Shapira wrote. Yet by October 2013, no plans had received final ministry approval, he added.

The State Comptroller’s Office took issue with the attitude of the Transportation Ministry to the preparation of these municipal programs. After questioning Tel Aviv’s plan of restricting public transportation use, the national traffic controller issued an order in April 2009 declaring most main streets in the central region “critical routes.”

The remaining issue examined in this section of the report involved the testing of pollutant emissions from the vehicles. The Environmental Protection Ministry has five mobile units for testing roadside pollution levels – though several have been intermittently inactive, while some can only test emissions from certain engine types, the report explained.

As for vehicle emissions, Shapira concluded that “due to the partial implementation of the law, long-lasting damage to public health and welfare have occurred, thus bringing considerable financial damage to the economy.”

Calling upon the relevant parties to act decisively to correct the deficiencies presented in the report, he said the environmental protection minister should establish a national air monitoring system and determine air quality values soon.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said his office would study the report thoroughly and was prepared to correct any flaws.

“Unfortunately, the chances of overcoming the deficiencies described in the report are dependent to a large extent on decisions of the Finance Ministry to cancel the massive budget cuts that were implemented in ministry programs to reduce air pollution,” the ministry said.

Regarding the establishment of a national system for air monitoring, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz has been accelerating the process and signed an order on the subject a month ago, the ministry said. There was a noticeably sharp decline in sulfur dioxide concentrations in Haifa, Hadera and Ashdod, as well as improvements in nitrogen oxide levels in Gush Dan and Jerusalem.

“The Environmental Protection Ministry hopes that the transition of most industries in Israel from using polluting fuels to using natural gas will be activated on a large scale, and as a result, the air pollution will drop all over the country,” the ministry said.