The collapse at an oil refinery in a city that produces almost 40 percent of the country’s industrial pollutants comes amid talks of plan to move petrochemical industries to southern Israel

Zafrir Rinat | Jun. 13, 2020 | 7:33 PM | 1

Friday’s collapse of one of the two iconic cooling towers of the Haifa oil refineries occurred, symbolically enough, just when the issue of a plan to move the refineries and associated industries from the Haifa Bay area came up for public discussion.

In January, the Haifa district Planning and Building Committee held a preliminary meeting about the government plan, dubbed Innovation Valley and spearheaded by the Israel Lands Authority, which had been seeking responses from the public, planners and government officials when the coronavirus crisis ground the process to a halt.

The plan’s main goal is to evacuate the refineries and petrochemical industries from the large area they occupy in the Haifa Bay and replace them with other sources of employment, excluding heavy industry, and tens of thousands of apartments. According to the government’s plan an alternative location for the refineries and related industries would be found in the Negev. The state is also expected to remove the fuel depot situated near the Haifa Bay town of Kiryat Haim.

However, there are still doubts about the plan because the report on which it is based, prepared by the American consulting firm McKinsey, has not yet been presented to the public.

The BAZAN Group, which owns the refineries, has not changed its plans and has even begun planning construction of an independent natural gas power station to produce the electricity needed for the refineries. According to BAZAN, the Innovation Valley project is slated for implementation only in another 20 or 30 years, and so it is reasonable to move ahead with its projects.

The removal of the petrochemical industries will no doubt have far-reaching environmental benefits for Haifa and its surroundings. Among the benefits is the rehabilitation of the Kishon Stream, now pent up by the petrochemical compound, as well as a reduction in air pollution, mainly nitrogen oxide.

Haifa occupies only a small percentage of land in Israel, but produces almost 40 percent of the country’s industrial pollutants, mostly from the refineries and heavy industry in the bay area. According to last year’s state comptroller’s report, the Environmental Protection Ministry has encountered major difficulties in enforcing the law when it comes to these industries.

The removal of the industries from their current location would also turn Haifa into a city with new employment and housing opportunities and provide a much needed change of image. But this is long and complex process, which would also involve cleanup of the ground itself and might take many years, is estimated at about $431 million.

The downside of the move would be creating more environmental stress on the Negev. Even if the refineries moved to an existing industrial zone in the Negev, it would still mean more pollution, spills and fuel transport. And so the question has come up as to the extent of Israel’s strategic need for the continued operation of the refineries, and they may not even have a place in the Negev.

According to the National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Ministry Israel will need oil refineries for domestic needs in the future and will also continue to need associated petrochemical products, for example, bitumen to pave roads. But the National Economic Council’s vice chairman, Yuval Admon, said at the district planning and construction committee meeting countered the argument that Israel can get along without the refineries.

According to Admon, even if the state imported refinery products it would still have to store them, and one possible place for such storage would be at or near the Haifa Port, so the city would in any case not be able to rid itself of petrochemical pollutants.

In terms of the global challenge of climate change, the world should be working toward independence from oil and coal as well as from natural gas. And so moving the industries to the Negev will not help combat climate change; the greenhouse gasses they produce will continue to reach the atmosphere.

One thing that can obviate dependence on the oil refineries or the import of refined petrochemical products is expanded use of electric cars. According to the Energy Ministry’s plan, by the end of the decade the import of gas-run vehicles will be banned. At present, about 60 percent of refined petrochemical products are used for transportation.

Until such ban is in place, the refineries in Haifa, or in the Negev, will be under very strict regulations, mainly of the Environmental Protection Ministry, to avoid the serious mishaps that have occurred over the past few years and to present pollution that exceeds legal limits.

Iconic cooling tower at Haifa refinery collapses, no casualties reported

‘The fall of symbols is very meaningful’: Tower collapses days after environmental activists and local mayors protested pollution from local industry

Jack Khoury, Zafrir Rinat | Jun. 12, 2020 | 11:30 AM | 2

One of the cooling towers that was used in the past by oil refineries in Haifa collapsed on Friday morning. According to the initial report, there were no casualties and there is no fear of leaked hazardous materials. 

BAZAN Group, the Crude oil industry company which owns the refineries, said the building had not been used since 2009 and that its upper part collapsed Friday morning following the fall of a one of its walls the day before. The group further said that the area is secure and they are “taking all steps, including consulting with engineering and planning experts, to study the event.”

The group’s spokesman told Haaretz that the tower that collapsed was empty, while the one next to it serves as a visitor center that is currently closed due to the coronavirus crisis. 

The two refineries began operating in the late 1930s, along with refinery operations in the region, and were halted in 2009. They rose to a height of 76 meters and were often unjustly identified as a symbol of the pollution created by the refineries, when in fact what was emitted from them was water vapor.

On Thursday, environmental activists and local mayors held a demonstration calling for the evacuation of polluting industries from the Gulf of Israel, most notably the refineries and associated plants. 

Next week, the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee will meet to discuss the plan for the evacuation of the plants.

Nehma Ronen, who previously served as a member of the board of directors of BAZAN Group and the chairman of the factory’s environmental committee, told Haaretz in 2008 that the refineries had previously considered blasting the sights as a symbolic act. “We were thinking of blowing up the sights and then with a single blow, the contamination would disappear,” she said at the time. 

The idea was rejected because of a survey conducted by Haifa and Krayot refineries, which indicated that residents were connected to the sights and preferred for them to remain.

Environment Minister Gila Gamliel wrote Friday morning that the collapse is “a significant symbol of the beginning of the end. This time the collapse happened by mistake, the next time it will be targeted. Haifa residents deserve to live in a healthy environment.”

Attorney Jamila Hardell of a civic association for the environment said this morning that the collapse may be “just a symbol. The fall of symbols is very meaningful, at a time when everyone already understands that the petrochemical industry has no reason to exist in the heart of a domestic area.”

A year ago, a state comptroller’s report was published stating that the Environment Ministry could not properly monitor and act against the pollution caused by the factories in Haifa, with emphasis on the refineries. 

According to the report, the ministry has a problem with the oversight and enforcement ability of the BAZAN group. “The large number of exceptions, faults, violations of the law and instructions in BAZAN factories found by the ministry shows that despite the critic’s comments in the past, the ministry’s activities are still largely lacking when it comes to implementing the various enforcement measures available to the group,” the report by former State Comptroller Joseph Shapiro said.

Earlier this month, the Haifa Magistrate’s Court convicted BAZAN with a plea bargain for reckless and negligent offenses, environmental offenses of air pollution and permit violations following the fire that broke out in the company’s container in Haifa in December of 2016. A fine of 1.2 million shekels ($ 350,000) was also imposed. 

The plea bargain was admitted and three executives of the company were convicted, including the group’s vice president, and the three were fined and handed a two-year suspension sentence.