Interior Ministry panel recommends adding half a million tons to annual quota; health minister objects because of pollution fears.
By Zafrir Rinat | Nov. 24, 2014

A panel of experts commissioned by the Interior Ministry has recommended earmarking large areas in the Arad Valley for phosphate mining, including an area where both local residents and the Health Ministry say mining will be detrimental to health.

Next week the National Planning and Building Council will discuss the new recommendations. If they are accepted, they will be officially incorporated into the national master plan for mining and quarrying.

The new recommendations are included in a policy document on mining and quarrying of industrial minerals prepared by an outside planning firm, Tik Proyektim, for the Interior Ministry’s planning administration. The document discusses a number of minerals, but mainly focuses on phosphates. Phosphates are currently mined at a number of sites in the Negev by Rotem Amfert Negev, a subsidiary of the Israel Chemicals Group.

The main recommendation was to mine 7.5 million tons of phosphates per year, half a million more than is currently mined, and to limit some phosphate exports.

The panel considered a number of sites in the Negev for phosphate mining. The main site proposed is the Arad Valley, where there are large reserves of high-quality phosphates and transportation costs are lower. It is also said to be less sensitive in terms of nature and landscape compared to areas in the southern Negev.

Another alternative is to close or cut back phosphate plants, which the report calls “destructive in terms of employment in the Negev and a significant blow to the state’s economy.”

As for concerns over pollution by the mining in one of the areas of the Arad Valley, called Sde Barir, near where a large Bedouin population lives, the panel said findings were inconclusive and recommended that criteria determined by the Environmental Protection Ministry should be met before mining takes place. Among these criteria are a minimal distance from communities of no less than one kilometer, treatment of dust and a small pilot project to determine whether air quality standards can be maintained.

However, based on the opinion of an American expert, Prof. Jonathan Samet, Health Minister Yael German opposes even the pilot project in the Sde Barir area due to health risks from pollution.

An anti-mining group in Arad said in response to the proposal: “The cat is out of the bag. If at first discussion was about Sde Barir, now Israel Chemicals has developed an appetite and they want double the area.”

The group expressed concerns that the Health Ministry’s stand was not being taken into consideration by planners and government ministers, and suggested that promotion of the project was an example of the connection between big money and government.