Government set to weaken pollution regulations to help business

Government set to weaken pollution regulations to help business

Activists warn that moves to ‘strike balance’ between economic costs, health benefits of limiting pollution and toxic substances will set back public’s protection ‘by decades’

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

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

Environmental organizations are gearing up to try to stop what they see as a surreptitious government attempt to pass changes in environmental regulations that will benefit business and industry at the cost of public health and nature in the Economic Arrangements Bill that accompanies the state budget.

The proposals, aimed at striking “a balance between environmental benefits and economic costs,” appear on page 151 of a 215-page document (in Hebrew) on the Finance Ministry’s website. Public comments are invited by July 10.

On Tuesday, environmental bodies met via Zoom videoconference to warn that the changes would take progress on air pollution back decades, endanger public health at a time when the coronavirus has highlighted the links between environmental and public wellbeing, and damage democracy by weakening the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry and local councils, instead putting excessive regulatory power into the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office and the finance and interior ministries.

In December 2018, the government decided to implement rules formulated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to reduce bureaucracy and simplify existing government regulations. The reforms are supposed to be carried out in a transparent way that involves the public and a broad range of stakeholders.

Amichai Fisher, head of a special regulations unit within the Prime Minister’s Office. (YouTube screenshot)

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.

In July last year, the unit’s head, Amichai Fisher, wrote to the Environmental Protection Ministry saying it 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.

The issue blew up in September, with both environmental protection officials and activists charging that the PMO was intending to relax environmental protection regulations to help industry, placing public health, and the environment, at increased risk.

Then came three election cycles, during which the regulations issue went quiet. Until now.

Multiplicity of permits

At present, different bodies provide separate permits for air pollution, marine pollution, toxic substance use and company registration.

The length of each permit varies, from one to three years for toxic substances, up to five years for marine pollution, seven years for air pollution and five to 15 years for company registration.

The government says that the current system creates uncertainty for businesses and hampers their ability to plan future investments.

Its solution is to combine all four permits into a single document, determined by one official, that will not need renewing for ten years. Changes, within the ten years, will be hard to make.

Permit decisions are to be based on environmental “risk management,” as well as the needs to “encourage economic activity” with the aim of creating “a balance between environmental benefits and economic costs,” the proposal states.

‘No consultation’

From Tuesday’s Zoom discussion, it emerged that none of the environmental organizations have been consulted about the proposals and that local authorities have also apparently been left out of the loop.

Maya Jacobs, head of the Zalul environmental organization, seen campaigning to protect the sea. (Facebook)

The government was intent on rescuing the country from the coronavirus but was ignoring both climate warming and the pollution that made people more vulnerable to disease, said Maya Jacobs of Zalul.

Adam Teva V’Din’s executive director Amit Bracha accused the Finance Ministry of looking only at narrow, short-term costs linked to industrial performance. The Clean Air Act, about to be neutered, had lowered pollution and saved the economy NIS 110 ($32) billion in indirect health costs, he said.

Amit Bracha, executive director, Adam Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

Under the proposals, factories will no longer be obliged to use so-called best available technology (technology undergoing constant updating that is approved by legislators or regulators), but will be able to choose the technology that they think is best. Maximum fines for violations will be cut by half.

Speaker after speaker slammed proposals to weaken local authorities by taking away their authority to grant business permits (including environmental regulations) to factories deemed of “national importance.”

Sarit Golan-Steinberg of the Haifa Municipality in northern Israel said it was wrong for business permits to be issued “by some bureaucrat in Jerusalem.” Local authorities understood much more about local industry and could be more effective in regulatory enforcement, she insisted, adding that neutering regulations was not the same as cutting red tape and bureaucracy.

The unrecognized villages around Ramat Hovav in southern Israel suffer from a high level of air pollution from nearby chemical evaporation ponds, December 28, 2017 (Yaniv Nadav/FLASH90)

Greenpeace Israel’s director, Jonathan Aikhenbaum, linked the effort to slip the proposals into the Economic Arrangements Bill to other moves he views as undemocratic, such as a bill to allow the government to impose coronavirus restrictions before seeking  Knesset approval, which passed its first reading in parliament on Monday.

Permits for factories of “national importance” would, Aikhenbaum went on, be given to the directors general of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry and the Interior Ministry.

Greenpeace Israel’s director, Jonathan Aikhenbaum. (Courtesy)

“They’re saying that if a factory is considered to be of national importance, the local authority has nothing to say,” he opined.

“In other countries, they’re strengthening environment ministries. This reform says that environmental and public health are not part of Israel’s national interest and that these ministries are second class.”

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