Court slaps NIS 1.2 million fine on oil refinery for 2016 toxic blaze

Additional fines of NIS 30,000 to 50,000 handed to three managers for failing to implement company rules, violating environmental permits

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

View of a fire that broke out at an oil refinery complex in Haifa, northern Israel, December 25, 2016. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)
View of a fire that broke out at an oil refinery complex in Haifa, northern Israel, December 25, 2016. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

The Haifa Magistrate’s Court on Monday slapped an NIS 1.2 million ($335,000) fine on the Bazan Group oil refining and petrochemicals company for negligence, pollution and violation of permits in connection with a massive fire that sent toxic black clouds floating over the Haifa Bay for several hours in late December 2016.

The court also handed out fines of between NIS 30,000 and NIS 50,000 ($8,600 to $14,350) each to three managers — Yariv Gratz, Tsachi Shapira and Yaron Ovadia — who admitted to charges against them within the framework of mediation and a plea deal.

The blaze, which took more than a day to extinguish, sent bright orange flames and thick black smoke billowing into the air above the northern port city and threatened other installations at the large industrial complex.

Police briefly closed main traffic arteries near the Haifa industrial zone as more than 40 firefighting teams worked to bring the flames under control.

View of a giant blaze at the Bazan Group oil refining and petrochemicals company on December 25, 2016. (Israel Police)

Investigations revealed that the day before the fire, a worker in the container area of the complex discovered that a covering that usually floated on one of the containers had sunk into the liquid concoction that it contained — isomerate, a gasoline blending component, and C-9 (penthane), both recognized as toxic, carcinogenic and highly flammable materials.

When the lid dropped in, some 200-300 cubic meters (1,220 to 1,820 imperial barrels) of isomerate were exposed to the atmosphere, sending hydrocarbons into the air and creating the conditions for a fire. Bazan’s fire and emergency services tried to retrieve the lid, but on the morning of the fire, while they were trying to dislodge the isomerate by spraying water jets from a height of 10 meters (32 feet), the fuel ignited and the event spun out of control.

The court heard how events of this kind can lead to pollution-related sicknesses such as cancer, cardiac and respiratory problems and harm to nervous systems, depending on exposure.

The three managers admitted having failed to implement company rules and to instruct their workers on implementation of the rules, and having violated the instructions of Environmental Protection Ministry permits.

Gas and oil Refinery in Haifa Bay at night (Photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
Haifa Bay, with its refineries, at night (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Located in the Haifa Bay, Bazan operates the largest oil refinery in the country. It is 33 percent owned by Idan Ofer’s Israel Corporation, the biggest holding company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. The Israel Corporation also holds a 46% stake in Israel Chemicals (ICL), which mines potash, phosphates, bromine and magnesium and produces fertilizers and other chemicals.

In December, a study by the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din revealed that factories connected to the Ofer family were responsible for at least NIS 1.2 billion ($340 million) worth of damage to public health caused by air pollution in 2018.

The Haifa bay area, hemmed in by the Carmel Mountains, is home to some of the heaviest industry in the country, and residents there have long feared an incident that could endanger the city.

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The 2016 fire came weeks after the city was ravaged by a series of wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. The city was also hit by heavy flooding earlier that month that killed a person.

Then-Haifa mayor Yona Yahav said at the time that the municipality had repeatedly warned the government about the danger posed by the refinery and the area’s massive ammonia storage tank, which had been threatened as targets by the Hezbollah terror group.

The ammonia tank, owned by Haifa Chemicals, was finally emptied in September 2017 after a long battle.

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