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Haifa court upholds ruling ordering ammonia tank emptied

Rejecting appeal, judge gives Haifa Group until April 1 to clear facility; says health and safety risks posed to city residents ‘unacceptable’

An ammonia storage tank in the northern city of Haifa. (Courtesy of Environmental Protection Ministry)
An ammonia storage tank in the northern city of Haifa. (Courtesy of Environmental Protection Ministry)

The Haifa District Court on Wednesday ordered an ammonia tank in the city to be emptied by next month, rejecting an appeal by the chemical company who sought to overturn the court’s February order to close the storage facility.

The Haifa Group, the fertilizer producer that operates the tank, was given until April 1 to empty the storage facility, following fears that damage to the tank could endanger the lives of tens of thousands of people in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

“The potential damage that could be caused is unacceptable by any standard,” Judge Tamar Sharon Netanel wrote in the court’s final decision on the matter.

“This is an issue that threatens the loss of human life, and the health of hundreds of thousands of people,” Netanel wrote.

The ruling noted the economic importance of the facility, but Netanel said the potential public health crisis outweighed company’s interests.

The court also ruled that ammonia would not be allowed to be stored in the facility in the future.

Officials say that tens of thousands of people could die if the tank should rupture, or a delivery ship is hit by a missile.

Haifa's industrial zone. The ammonia tank is visible on the jetty jutting into the sea at the right. (Shay Levy/Flash90)
Haifa’s industrial zone. The ammonia tank is visible on the jetty jutting into the sea at the right. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

It wasn’t immediately clear how much ammonia the 12,000-ton-capacity tank currently contains.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav on Wednesday hailed the “brave and historic ruling,” and thanked Netanel on behalf of Haifa residents for displaying courage in protecting the city.

Last month, the Haifa court gave the Haifa Group until February 26 to remove the chemical from its tank on the bay.

After initially signaling that it would abide by the ruling, the company filed a last-minute appeal, slamming the Haifa municipality as “demagogues” trying to “sow fear among the public.”

Haifa Group had argued that emptying the ammonia storage tank would “eliminate the operations of whole industrial sectors” and deal a serious blow to the local economy.

Activists protest outside a court hearing regarding the closure of an ammonia storage tank outside the Haifa District Court on February 26, 2017. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)
Activists protest outside a court hearing regarding the closure of an ammonia storage tank outside the Haifa District Court on February 26, 2017. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

During a hearing Sunday, thousands of people rallied outside the courthouse and schools in Haifa went on strike to protest the continued operation of the ammonia tank.

The Haifa municipality submitted its petition for the closure of the ammonium storage facility following the publication of a report it commissioned earlier this year that found the port city’s ammonia operations pose a serious risk to the population.

The report was also submitted to the High Court of Justice as part of the ongoing legal dispute between Haifa Group and the municipality.

The report warned that if ruptured, the vast ammonia storage tank would suffocate 16,000 victims under a toxic cloud. The tank could “fall apart tomorrow morning,” the report’s author, chemistry professor Ehud Keinan, said at a press conference to release the report on January 31, held at the municipality.

“If the tank breaks apart we are talking about 16,000 fatalities,” Keinan warned.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and Professor Ehud Keinan speak at a press conference at the Haifa Municipality regarding a report on the dangers of the ammonia tank in the Haifa bay. January 31, 2017. (Flash90)
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav and Professor Ehud Keinan speak at a press conference at the Haifa Municipality regarding a report on the dangers of the ammonia tank in the Haifa bay. January 31, 2017. (Flash90)

But 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 container once a month. If its cargo were released to the air, it could kill as many as 600,000 in the bay area, according to Keinan.

Last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to target Haifa’s ammonia facilities with rockets in the next conflict with Israel.

He quoted an unnamed Israeli official saying that a strike on the northern city’s ammonia storage tanks would cause tens of thousands of fatalities.

Hours after Nasrallah issued the explicit threat to strike Haifa, then-environmental protection minister Avi Gabbai said he had ordered that the ammonia storage facility be moved to an industrial area in the sparsely populated Negev desert. The order was never implemented.

Keinan wrote the report along with 10 other experts. Its findings were presented to the Haifa municipality several months ago, but were only made public in Janury.

Following recent legal wrangling between the Haifa Group and the city, the Environmental Protection Ministry announced in February it would not renew its permit for the company’s tank.

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