Giant Nesher cement plant gets OK to burn waste for fuel, despite protests

Giant Nesher cement plant gets OK to burn waste for fuel, despite protests

Opponents say new emissions permit will see Nesher factory near Ramle in central Israel discharge even greater amounts of harmful mercury and other chemicals into air

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

The Nesher cement plant near Ramle in central Israel. (Screenshot)
The Nesher cement plant near Ramle in central Israel. (Screenshot)

Following a period of public consultation, the Environmental Protection Ministry on Tuesday approved a revised emissions permit for the massive Nesher cement plant in central Israel despite the concerns of environmentalists and local residents.

In 2014, Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises was given a permit for emissions through 2021. Around 18 months ago, it submitted a request to the Environmental Protection Ministry for changes to the permit. It wanted a green light to replace some of its raw materials with waste that is similar in composition, and to use more waste as fuel for the furnaces to reduce dependence on petcoke (petroleum coke). Petcoke, derived from fossil fuels, has a higher energy content than coal, but emits 30 to 80 percent more carbon dioxide into the air when burned.

At a public hearing earlier this month, Arie Vanger, responsible for air-related issues at the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, used data from the Environment Ministry’s own emissions register to argue that Nesher already pumps into the air more mercury than all of Israel’s coal-fired power stations combined. According to the World Health Organization, inhaling mercury vapor can harm the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as lungs and kidneys, and can be fatal.

The request for increased emissions of metals such as cadmium, lead, copper and arsenic was “particularly infuriating,” he added.

Part of the Nesher cement plant in central Israel. (Screenshot)

He charged that the documents accompanying the request for permit changes reflected no effort to evaluate the expected emissions of dangerous metals such as mercury, volatile organic compounds, dioxins and furans, nor to calculate the extent to which these emissions would be dispersed in the environment.

He demanded testing be carried out to determine what combinations of toxic waste could be permitted. In this he was echoed and amplified by other voices at the public hearing that called for epidemiological testing of respiratory disease among children in the area and a pilot project that would track the concentration of metals in the air.

In a statement to the Times of Israel following approval of the revised permit, Nesher said, “As is customary in the global cement industry, the Nesher plant in Ramle uses raw materials and alternative fuels, thus achieving a number of environmental goals, including reducing landfill, minimizing the use of natural resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 

The changes would not increase emissions into the air, the statement said, because of the factory’s production processes, control over the composition of materials used, and environmental monitoring.

The factory, near the city of Ramle, produces around four million tons of clinker (calcium silicates ground up for use as a binder in many cement products) and around five million tons of cement each year. It operates two furnaces for clinker production and seven plants for cement production.

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