Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday called a meeting with ministers and senior officials to look at ways to delay the court-ordered closure of a controversial ammonia storage tank that has pitted the Haifa municipality against industrialists.
Netanyahu met with Economics Minister Eli Cohen and Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, as well as other representatives from other government ministries, and asked them to explore the possibilities of keeping the massive tank operating for another two years until an alternative is found, Channel 2 television reported. His office countered that a closure postponement of weeks, not years, was discussed.
Local officials, led by Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, say that tens of thousands of people could die if the 12,000-ton-capacity tank should rupture, and that even more would be at risk if a delivery ship is hit by a missile. Lebanese terror group Hezbollah has threatened to target the tank with rockets in any future conflict with Israel. A Haifa District Court order requires that the tank be emptied and shut down by the end of next month.
In what marked the first time that the prime minister has involved himself in the matter, Netanyahu raised concerns that closing down the tank will cut off ammonia supplies and cause the collapse of the local fertilizer industry, causing thousands of redundancies.
According to the report, Netanyahu is an acquaintance of Jules Trump — no relation to the US president, the billionaire owner of Haifa Group, which operates the tank. Netanyahu’s bureau stressed in a statement that the acquaintanceship between the two men had no influence on the prime minister’s involvement.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu completely rejects the futile attempts to cast doubt on his considerations in the matter of the ammonia tank,” the statement said. “Netanyahu has not spoken with Jules Trump for over a year, and has not spoken with him about the tank at all. The delay that was debated today is for a number of weeks and not two years, and that is in order to find a way to prevent the firing of thousands of workers.”
Israel Radio reported that Haifa Municipality responded by saying it expects Netanyahu to personally act to remove the daily threat hanging over hundreds of thousands of residents.
In 2013, the government decided to shut down the ammonia tank in Haifa Bay by 2017 and to set up a new production plant in the Negev instead, out of concerns for the safety of the citizens of Haifa. The government also committed to ensuring a continuous supply of the compound until the new production plant was up and running.
Ammonia is used by chemical manufacturers in Israel, including Haifa Group, to make potassium nitrate, a fertilizer used by farmers in Israel and globally to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Following the publication of a report commissioned by the city of Haifa that found the ammonia operations posed a serious risk to the population, a court ordered the closure of the tank where the ammonia is stored after arriving by ship in Haifa Bay. A tender to set up the new plant in the Negev failed in 2016 due to a lack of bidders, leaving the new production facility far from being built.
Earlier this month the Supreme Court banned delivery ships from bringing more ammonia to resupply the tank.
Haifa Group has said its business cannot function without ammonia and has lobbied the government to find an alternative supply of the compound until a new manufacturing plant can built in the south of the country.
“The government has to open up the doors to allow ammonia on some basis,” Jules Trump said in a March interview with the Times of Israel. “You don’t close off the road to the town until there is another road, until you develop a plan.”
The company employs some 800 workers directly, and indirectly an additional 3,600 people are expected to be affected by the closure of operations, according to the Economics and Industry Ministry. The operations of Haifa Chemicals account for two percent of Israel’s industrial exports and 1% of total exports from Israel, the Manufacturers Association of Israel said in a February report.
Haifa municipality has been lobbying for the closure of the plant after a report it commissioned found the ammonia operations pose a serious risk to the population. The report, released on January 31, warned that if ruptured, the vast ammonia storage tank would suffocate 16,000 victims under a toxic cloud.
An even worse danger, the report warned, is posed by a delivery ship carrying over 16,000 tons of ammonia that arrives at the Haifa port once a month. If its cargo were released to the air, it could kill as many as 600,000 in the bay area, the report’s author wrote.
Shoshana Solomon contributed to this report.