Planning commission debates consequences of proposed Sde Barir project near Arad.
By Zafrir Rinat | Dec. 3, 2014

Currently in Israel, the Clean Air Law is being exploited to sanction air pollution and appropriate testing is not being conducted to gauge the impact of this pollution – so said the Health Ministry Tuesday at a National Planning and Building Council hearing to approve a policy paper concerning phosphate mining in the Negev. At issue at the hearing was the air pollution that will result from the planned mining at the Sde Barir field near Arad.

The Health Ministry asserted that mining at Sde Barir would increase the risk to local residents. Representatives of the Environmental Protection Ministry rejected that claim, and argued that there would be no increased risk. the Interior Ministry decided to schedule another hearing on the matter to obtain further explanations and figures from the two ministries.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Health Ministry presented a letter from Prof. Itamar Grotto, its director of public health services. The letter was highly critical of the handling of air pollution in Israel. Grotto complained that while the Environmental Protection Ministry was able to require that environmental impact surveys be carried out during the approval process for various construction or mining projects, the Health Ministry’s request to conduct health impact surveys was rejected. Without this tool, the ministry cannot properly assess the health risks.

According to Grotto, the Clean Air Law that is supposed to prevent air pollution is in fact doing just the opposite – since it allows for new projects to be carried out even if they don’t meet the target values of the lowest levels of pollution that experts agree are required in order to reduce health risks. Instead, they are allowed to comply with higher levels of pollution, defined in the law as environmental values. The Health Ministry insists that the target values of the Clean Air Law should always be the goal, primarily with new projects.

Regarding Sde Barir, Grotto writes: “Our policy is not based on the number of people who die, but on the additional risk of death as a result of exposure in the communities near the mine.” He says that in the case of Sde Barir, the additional risk is beyond what could be termed reasonable. Nor is it possible to conduct a pilot mining project to test the pollution levels, since in order to obtain truly useful information, it would have to be done at a spot close to the city and to such an extent that it would no longer be a pilot, but rather a clinical trial with human test subjects.

“The information we have shows that the activity at Sde Barir will not lead to pollution that exceeds the environmental value set by the Clean Air Law,” says Shahar Solar, head of the Environmental Planning and Green Building Division at the Environmental Protection Ministry, who spoke for the ministry at the hearing. “Since the project meets the requirements of the law, we see no logical environmental reason to object to it. We do wish to insist that the target values are met, and the environmental impact survey to be conducted as part of the project will be used to ensure this. We will be able to require that technical means for pollution reduction are used.”

Other Environmental Protection Ministry professionals present at the hearing argued that the pollution disseminated from Sde Barir would not exceed the current levels found on many streets, or the levels produced by various facilities, including hospital chimneys.