Emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur per capita are down as much as 60 percent as power plants shift to natural gas, though EU countries are still doing better
Zafrir Rinat | Oct. 3, 2018 | 12:55 AM

Over the past six years Israel has seen a considerable drop in polluting emissions from industry and energy companies, as well as in sea pollution from effluents and sewage, according to the 2017 Pollutant Release and Transfer Register released by the Environmental Protection Ministry on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, there are still significant sources of air pollution, including the Tamar offshore natural-gas platform and factories in the Haifa Bay area. Oil Refineries Ltd. showed an 18 percent increase in suspicious or known toxic emissions last year, though overall such emissions dropped 7 percent in the Haifa Bay area.

According to ministry data, Israel’s emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulfur per capita are still higher than in most EU countries. These pollutants can damage the lungs and increase the incidence of cardiovascular disease. The main source of these emissions remains coal-fired power plants in Hadera and Ashkelon, where many plants operate without advanced pollution-reduction technology.

Still, such emissions have declined between 50 percent and 60 percent overall over the past six years as several power plants are now using natural gas to produce electricity.

Emissions of suspected or known carcinogens actually rose 1 percent last year, but have dropped 44 percent since 2012. Last year’s uptick stemmed mainly from the increased emissions by asphalt plants, due to increased production, and from landfills.

The Tamar rig operated by Houston-based Noble Energy continued to emit large quantities of volatile organic materials, some of which are carcinogenic, led by benzene. The annual emission is about 1,000 tons, though according to the ministry, the impact is negligible because the gas platform is 22 kilometers (14 miles) from the shore.

Still, “In accordance with the requirements of the Clean Air Law, Noble Energy was required to reduce these emissions, and the installation of the reduction measures will be completed in the first quarter of 2019 and will lead to a reduction in emissions from the Tamar platform by 98 percent,” the ministry said.

“Such emissions are not expected from the Leviathan platform, since there the natural gas is to be handled by a closed system that will collect the gas emitted from various systems and use it as fuel for the platform’s own energy facilities.”

Opponents of construction of a platform off Carmel Beach say that no system in the world can prevent emissions at a rate that the ministry is claiming, and that the gas platform would danger the air quality of nearby residential areas.

Onshore, emissions of volatile organic materials have decreased 8 percent since 2012. The Carmel Olefins plant reduced its emissions by around 110 tons compared to 2016 after the ministry’s demands were implemented. A reduction of more than 500 tons of emissions resulted from the closure of the Haifa Chemicals plant in Haifa, as well as the shutdowns at its factory in the south after the ammonia tank was closed.

In Haifa Bay last year there was a 29 percent drop in volatile organic emissions from a year earlier and a 61 percent drop since 2012. The area saw a 7 percent year-on-year drop in emissions of suspected or known carcinogens, or 66 percent since 2012.

Pollutants flowing into the Mediterranean Sea declined a stellar 96 percent last year, as the Dan Regional Association for Environmental Infrastructure’s new sludge treatment plant came online. Discharge of the sludge into the sea ceased in February last year.

In 2017 there was also a 46 percent drop in the effluents discharged into rivers and streams compared to the previous year. This was mainly due to the closure of the Haifa Chemicals plant, which halted the discharge of effluents into the Kishon River. (These statistics relate to the discharge of contaminants into the sea and streams by permit, and do not include illegal discharges.)

There was a 6 percent increase in the recycling of mixed municipal waste over the last two years (this reflects the reports by the transfer stations and not the country’s total waste). Reasons for this include the opening of the organic waste-sorting and separation facility at the GreenNet transfer station in Atarot, and the refuse-derived fuel facility for sorting mixed waste at the Hiriya recycling park.

Zalul, an environmental group that focuses on water quality, welcomed Tuesday’s news but said it “regrets that the environment ministry is ignoring the big picture. The sea and streams are still victims of direct pollution by factories and sewage.”

As Zalul put it, “The ministry is only counting the flow into the sea produced by permit and is ignoring the hundreds of instances of pollution that have no permit. It’s also disappointing that the ministry is adopting the false rhetoric of the Energy Ministry and the gas companies that the Leviathan platform will be closed and green, even though there is no example of such a platform anywhere in the world.”

Oil Refineries Ltd. said that it “operates according to the strictest procedures of the environment ministry to identify and treat leakage sources from its facilities.”

It said it “carries out half a million tests annually to identify potential sources of leakage, and leaks discovered and dealt with in 2017 constituted 0.19 percent of annual tests. The improving air-quality trend in Haifa as emerges from the report is encouraging, and Oil Refineries will continue to work to improve air quality in the region.”

The Manufacturers Association said it welcomed the new numbers, which it said “prove the industry’s long-standing commitment to reducing emissions while investing more than 1 billion shekels [$274 million] each year.”

According to the association, “These statistics come on top of the air-quality data measured last Yom Kippur that once again showed that industry is no longer a main source of emissions, but rather heavy transportation. It is therefore necessary to intensify government policy to reduce emissions mainly from transportation, in addition to other emission sources.”