Report: State Comptroller Seeks Criminal Investigation in Ammonia Affair

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

The fact that Haifa Chemicals has been able to operate a substandard ammonia storage facility in Haifa Bay for years after the High Court ordered it shut down, and the lengthy amount of time that it has taken the government to approve alternative storage schemes – and the fact that despite numerous court orders and a loud public outcry, the storage facility is still operational – all lead to the suspicion of serious violations of the law, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira said in a letter to State Attorney Avichai Mandelblit, Channel Two reported. According to information he has gathered, Shapira wrote, there were improprieties in the way the government has handled the matter, and it appeared that the motivation was to benefit the business interests involved in the matter.

According to a report last week in Haaretz, the State Comptroller has been questioning the role of numerous public officials in the matter. Among them is director-general of the Environment Ministry, Yisrael Danziger, who is being investigated for conflict of interest in representing the interests of Haifa Chemicals to the detriment of the environment. The report did not specify what the conflict of interest was.

Last month, the government decided to resolve the ongoing dilemma of how to supply the Israeli industry with ammonia by building a new storage facility in southern Israel. The storage facility will be built in the Rotem industrial zone, near Be’er Sheva. The new facility, government officials said, will provide a long-term solution for the ammonia needs of the Israeli industry.

Until the facility is built, the ammonia will be stored in small ships off the coast of Haifa. The ships will each hold only several weeks’ supply of ammonia, so that in the event of a leak or other problem, the environmental damage could be easily controlled. The project will require anticipating the needs of customers and delivering the ammonia until the Rotem facility is ready. The ammonia will be transferred to land via a dedicated pipeline.

It will take several years until the new facility is ready, but government officials said they would do everything possible to push the plan through. Environment Minister Zeev Elkin said he would seek exemptions from certain planning procedures that would usually require the approval of various planning boards, in conjunction with local officials in the Rotem region. An environmental impact study has already been planned and will be expedited, and any issues that would prevent the establishment of the facility will be resolved quickly, Elkin pledged.

The issue of where to store the ammonia has been a hot topic for years. In 2013, the Environment Ministry approved a plan to move it to a less-populated area of the Negev, because of fears that a leak or other incident could endanger the health and lives of the 800,000 residents of the region. The matter has been a cause celebré for environmental groups for decades, who have organized many petitions, protests and marches over the years to move the facility.

The new facilities will replace the aging ammonia storage facilities in Haifa Port, which the High Court ordered closed months ago. The government has sought to postpone the closure until a suitable replacement could be found. According to the government, the ammonia stored in the facilities is essential in the production of many industrial and consumer items, such as fertilizers, cement, paper, medicines, food products and much more. Many of those industrial concerns are located in the Haifa area, and transporting the ammonia from elsewhere would be impractical, according to officials. In May, the government approved a plan to allow Haifa Chemicals to store ammonia off the coast of Haifa in dedicated ships. However, the Court rejected that plan as well. The plan to store ammonia in small ships has not been tested in court yet. A previous plan to store the ammonia in large ships was rejected as well.

However, according to the Haaretz report, an initial investigation by the State Comptroller indicated that the only companies that needed the amounts of ammonia that the government claims are needed are Haifa Chemicals and Israel Chemicals. In essence, the entire effort to find “suitable storage facilities” is being done specifically for those companies, not the economy in general, those findings showed. Mandelblit has not yet responded on how or if he will proceed with an investigation.