Ex-chief scientist: Bid to cut emissions regulations could endanger lives

Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu, formerly of the Environmental Protection Ministry, slams apparent attempts by Prime Minister’s Office to inject economic considerations into ecological policy

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

View of the oil refineries in Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017.  (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)
View of the oil refineries in Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)

The former chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Ministry has joined the chorus of protests over apparent attempts by the Prime Minister’s Office to water down the ministry’s authority to issue environmental regulations and to force it to weigh economic considerations in its decision-making.

Dr. Sinaia Netanyahu’s comments join those of the ministry’s director general Guy Samet and of several green organizations. They claim the Prime Minister’s Office is acting for the benefit of industry and warn that trying to relax environmental protection regulations places public health, and the environment, at increased risk.

Green organizations have been given until September 15 to respond to what the Prime Minister’s Office claims are the ministry’s failures.

At the initiative of the Society for the Protection of Nature, 17 environmental groups asked Tuesday to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his officials on various issues, including proposals to alter the way the Environmental Protection Ministry operates. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with representatives of the Manufacturers Association that represents industrialists on Thursday.

In December, the government decided to implement regulations formulated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to reduce bureaucracy and simplify existing government regulations. The reforms aimed to do so in a transparent way that involved the public and a broad range of stakeholders.

A special regulations unit was established in the Prime Minister’s Office to map regulatory practice across government, pinpoint duplication, review supervision and enforcement and advance relevant legislation.

Oil refineries towers in the northern port city of Haifa on October 16, 2006. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In July, the unit’s head, Amichai Fisher, wrote to Samet, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director general, telling him that the unit had decided to focus on several “central issues,” among them environmental regulations. The letter invited Samet to explain his ministry’s position on “central problems raised by various sources.”

Samet’s ministry, Fisher wrote, had failed to demonstrate a “broad view” that balanced environmental interests with other interests, such as those of regulators in other ministries, when it issued permits for industrial plants considered part of the national infrastructure.

Furthermore, according to Fisher, the ministry’s policy on air pollution was stricter than that adopted by OECD countries. The ministry was failing to provide the industry with “regulatory stability” by requiring a multiplicity of permits, by demanding that the permits be renewed within short periods of time, and by allowing itself to alter permit requirements. As for toxic materials, air pollution and dumping at sea, the ministry was setting conditions that factories and plants were unable to fulfill through no fault of their own, the letter claimed.

Samet invited two environmental organizations to accompany his representatives to the meeting with Fisher — the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din. The latter agreed to submit its initial comments to the Prime Minister’s Office and urged that the process be made transparent.

A second letter from Fisher, entitled “Problems with Environmental Regulation,” followed in August, this time inviting green organizations to respond to a list of issues within 21 days, on no more than four pages of paper.

Balancing environmental needs with economic ones

The issues included the creation of a “coherent environmental policy” on permits and licenses that balanced environmental interests with those of other ministries and of the economy; the need to formulate environmental policy after consultation with “all relevant stakeholders” and consideration of “additional” factors beyond solely environmental ones; and the “problems” arising from the “frequency of policy changes,” the lack of long-term licenses and the need to enable those seeking permits to do so in an efficient fashion [rather than having to seek out different officials].

1,000 activists and Haifa area residents crowd the Kiryat Haim suburb to protest Health Ministry findings that linked high cancer rates in the city with high levels of air pollution, May 3, 2015 (Screen capture: Facebook)

In a cover letter to the comments she sent to Amichai Fisher on Sunday, Sinaia Netanyahu — the Environmental Protection Ministry’s chief scientist from 2011 to the end of 2017 — slammed the unit for the “abysmal gap” between its approach to environmental regulation and that which she said was “common in enlightened and developed countries.”

Former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry, Sinaia Netanyahu. (YouTube screenshot)

Regulation in the European Union reflected the lowest common denominator to secure agreement between members, but left it open for individual countries to issue regulations that were more stringent, she said.

It was clear that the unit was acting because of complaints from industry and it was  “sad and infuriating” that the general public was not being consulted — green organizations were not a substitute, she said.

Increasing the risks to public and environmental health

The former chief scientist said that the Environmental Protection Ministry’s role was to protect public health and nature’s systems, warning that any attempt to ease regulations would only harm human life, welfare, biodiversity and the ecological services that enable society to function and thrive.

“Environmental policy must be coherent but does not need to take into account the needs of the economy (jobs, the exchange rate, etc),” she wrote. It was time for the authorities to understand that industries that were unable to meet environmental requirements would have to shut down. It was time to prepare the educational system, professional training and future drivers of growth for a new era of higher environmental standards.

Pollution seen from an unrecognized Bedouin village close to the Ramat Hovav industrial zone in southern Israel, December 28, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)

Rather than comparing Israel to other countries, which was complex and not necessarily relevant, and rather than weakening domestic regulations, the important thing was to strengthen the ministry’s professional and scientific strength, Netanyahu said.

Even where regulations were imposed, usually following extensive negotiations with the industries, factories failed to adhere to timetables or budget the necessary funds to implement environmental directives, she said.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Netanyahu was more blunt.

Who has the right to allow more people to die?

“When you issue an emissions permit, you are agreeing in advance to a certain level of pollution and a certain risk. But now, it seems that the PMO is saying that it’s prepared to increase that risk, by weakening the regulations. Relaxing regulations and taking more risks needs to be backed by evidence; otherwise, the moral right to allow more people to die from exposure to a certain pollutant has to be explained.

“Industry wants quiet. It wants to get a permit and be left alone for several years. But you have to maintain flexibility to make changes as science reveals more about the connections between emissions from industrial processes and damage to public health or the environment. Obviously it can work both ways.”

She went on, “Let’s remember that the ministries are the regulators here, they are supposed to be the experts and to set the rules.  A factory can say, I can’t do it in five years and ask for seven, or I can do things in a particular order. But let’s be on track. We want industry and trade and we can relax some things. But we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

An Environmental Protection Ministry worker checking the air in central Israel Thursday. (photo credit: Yehoshua Yosef/Flash90)
An Environmental Protection Ministry worker checks exhaust fumes in central Israel. (Yehoshua Yosef/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry shouldn’t have to adapt itself to the interests of other ministries, she added.  Costs and benefits could be weighed and trade-offs could be agreed on — but only with respect to timetables and not to the underlying standards.

The post of chief scientist at the ministry has not been filled since Netanyahu left, and Guy Samet became director general after his predecessor quit in December.

A statement from Adam Teva V’Din charged that the PMO move was intended to allow industrial factories to operate without any gatekeepers and was part of broader government attempts to weaken the rule of law.

Environmental regulation in Israel already lagged seriously behind other developed countries. Critical legislation, on issues such as energy, climate change, single-use plastic, general refuse, and the rehabilitation of polluted land was repeatedly delayed, often following intervention by tycoons.

Furthermore, the continuing erosion of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s authority has been blamed for the crisis in enforcement that was expressed in two critical reports released earlier this year by the former state comptroller.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in the Knesset, December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In the second report on the issue this year, and his last before retiring, Yosef Shapira’s report found that the northern city of Haifa’s air quality had barely improved in four years and that some 900,000 residents of the city and the surrounding metropolitan area were being exposed to carcinogenic pollutants just as much as when a national plan to change this was adopted by the ministry in 2015.

The Haifa Bay is home to oil refineries as well as chemical and metals plants.

The statement also said that Israel lags behind other countries in failing to relate to environmental harm as an economic cost or to environmental regulation as something that brings economic benefits. While the Clean Air Law required an investment of around NIS 38 billion ($10.8 billion), mainly to reduce pollution from coal-fired power stations, it has saved an estimated NIS 115 billion ($32.6 billion) billion in the ten years since it was enacted.

Yoni Sapir of the NGO “Guardians of Home” — which is fighting to have a massive natural gas platform moved further out to sea from its approved location just under 10 kilometers from the Dor beach, north of Caesarea — said the conclusions of the regulations unit on environmental issues spelled the “de facto cancellation of the Environmental Protection Ministry and the depletion of its powers.” His and other green organizations were weighing a petition to the High Court against the measure, he said.

A marine crane vessel en route to Israel to set up the Leviathan natural gas platform 9.7 km (6 miles) from the popular Dor Beach, north of Caesarea. (Noble Energy)

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, which was coordinated with the Environmental Protection Ministry, said, “The Prime Minister’s Office and the Environmental Protection Ministry see eye to eye on the need to reduce regulation and meet environmental standards like those of the OECD. The improvement of regulation in a considered and responsible way will benefit society and the economy and will articulate the obligation of the entire government to the interests of the public and the environment.

“Israel has reached important environmental achievements and there is no intention for reduced regulation to harm the environment, but instead to improve it. In line with this, in the coming days, the directors general of the two offices (PMO and Environmental Protection Ministry) will meet, together with their professional teams, to advance this important program within the framework of balancing the various interests.”

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