Ammonia Time Bomb Ticks on in Haifa

Haifa Chemicals’ ammonia tank, Israel’s largest, is seen in the Haifa Bay area on Sunday. (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

 The ammonia plant in Haifa described as a “ticking time bomb” will continue to tick for a few more days, as the district court said at a hearing on Sunday morning, that a ruling whether or not to close down the facility would not be issued until Wednesday.

The delay, the second this month‑this extends a court deadline of February 26, which had superseded one on February 22-was prompted apparently by a last-minute appeal from the owner, the Haifa Group, which charged the Haifa municipality as being “demagogues” seeking to “sow fear among the public.”

The company also pointed out that closure of the facility would be economically disastrous, as it would “eliminate the operations of whole industrial sectors” and result in heavy job losses.

The Haifa Group had initially agreed to comply with an order to empty the huge tanker, which has been the target of mounting criticism. After a recent report warning that in the event of an accidental leak or a terrorist attack, thousands of lives could be lost, the Haifa city council petitioned the courts to shut it down. A plan to transfer it to a remote area in the Negev fell through several months ago.

While the court met on Sunday morning, an estimated 3,000 people demonstrated, blocking traffic near the court building, to demand the facility be emptied out immediately.

Joining the protest, high schools in Haifa and the surrounding area went on strike, with all classes canceled from 8 a.m. to noon on Sunday.

In response to the latest legal delay, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav pledged to continue fighting to rid the city of dangerous industrial installations and pollutants.

“We won’t stop until they remove the ammonia tank and we need to move on to the next step, stopping the expansion of refineries and curbing pollution,” he said, according to Channel 10.

Pressure was brought on the company at the national level as well last Wednesday, as the Environmental Protection Ministry announced it would not renew the permit for the Haifa Group’s tank.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said he reached his decision “in light of the fact that there is no solution on the horizon” and because “the [ammonia] tank places the public and the environment in danger, which we cannot abide.”

However, Elkin noted that in consideration of the financial impact of closure, the Ministry would allow “a period of three months for the Economy Ministry [to make] arrangements for alternative sources of ammonia purchases.” The Economy Ministry last week requested a three-month stay on carrying out the ruling in order to review the economic ramifications of the move.

Mor Gilboa, CEO of the Green Course student movement, hailed local area residents who “showed up in droves to convey a clear message to the Israeli government that we must get rid of this ticking time bomb in the Haifa Bay.”

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Prof. Dan Shechtman lent his prestige to the campaign in an intervew with Israel Radio on Sunday, calling the plant “very, very dangerous.”