Health expert: Government move to sidestep clean air law is a ‘license to kill’

Head of public health association warns that Finance Ministry bid to weaken oversight to speed up building of big infrastructure projects would cause ‘irreversible harm’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A bulldozer carries sand from the sea during construction of a hotel on the beachfront in Bat Yam on the central coast, March 14, 2011. (Nicky Kelvin/Flash 90)
A bulldozer carries sand from the sea during construction of a hotel on the beachfront in Bat Yam on the central coast, March 14, 2011. (Nicky Kelvin/Flash 90)

A controversial government proposal to allow the manager of the country’s electricity grid to sidestep clean air legislation is tantamount to a “license to kill,” a top public health expert warned Sunday.

Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and chairman of the country’s Association of Public Health Physicians, said in an online briefing that proposals contained within this year’s Arrangements Law, which accompanies the state budget, would cause damage to humans, animals and the environment that would be impossible to reverse.

To speed up big infrastructure projects, the Finance Ministry is proposing a slew of steps to limit the roles played by the Environmental Protection Ministry, local authorities and the public in the planning process.

These include allowing the Independent System Operator, a recently created state body tasked with the day-to-day management of the electricity grid — to skirt the requirements of the clean air law if constant electricity supply to customers is threatened by production or transmission problems or damage to the system.

“The cat cannot guard the cream,” said Levine, explaining that any rise in pollution would mean a rise in deaths from chronic diseases that are exacerbated by pollution.

He cited recently published peer-reviewed research, which he undertook together with doctoral student Wiessam Abu Ahmad, that found that babies born in areas with high air pollution had a 25 percent higher chance of low birth weight.

Hagai Levine (Screen capture: YouTube)

He said it was “total nonsense” to think there was a threshold below which everything would be okay.

“Any addition of emissions endangers human life. They are providing a license to kill,” he said.

Levine was one of more than 100 people from the fields of environment, health and local government who attended what was billed as an “emergency” meeting on Zoom about the Arrangements Law, organized by several nonprofit organizations.

He attacked another proposal in the Arrangements Law that would remove the National Committee for the Preservation of the Coastal Environment’s right to review the impact of national infrastructure plans on natural landscapes and heritage close to the sea.

Not only would this negatively affect access to beaches and sea, which are important for mental, physical and community health, he charged that it would disproportionately harm the poor because the wealthy would still have access to marinas and yachts.

An aerial view of construction cranes in Modiin, July 2020. (ronib1979 via iStock by Getty Images)

A third proposal to permit noisy construction work on priority infrastructure projects located in residential areas at any time up to the maximum level determined by law, and — during certain hours — allowing noise levels to exceed what is allowed, would mean residents would sleep less well, blood pressure levels would rise and developing fetuses would be harmed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has until May 29 to complete three Knesset plenum votes on the budget and the Arrangements Law, or else automatically trigger the government’s collapse.

Knesset committees are currently conducting discussions on the many clauses of the bill.

The most up-to-date version contains two changes in the environmental sphere.

The first relates to a particularly contentious proposal made in an earlier draft of the bill to replace Environmental Protection Ministry advisers on planning committees with private environmental consultants — who, as activists charge, risk conflicts of interest because they also provide services to developers.

Illustrative: Construction of a new highway, June 12, 2013. (Flash 90)

The current draft allows the ministry’s advisers to stay but subjects them to timetables that are so tight that without extra funds, they are likely to fail, according to Assaf Zanzuri, the planning policy coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Officials will be given seven days to submit proposed conditions for an environmental impact survey on an essential infrastructure project. They will get seven days to ask a developer who has provided such a survey for corrections or additional information. And once they receive the final version, they will get just 14 days to provide the planners with an opinion.

The interior and finance ministries will be tasked with checking whether the officials are meeting these timetables and if not, the officials will be replaced by private environmental advisers.

Illustrative photograph of felling a tree. (WoodysPhotos, iStock at Getty Images)

The second change in the current draft of the bill relates to the authority of the Forestry Commissioner’s office to determine whether a protected or mature tree can be cut down to make room for a big infrastructure project.

In the original version of the bill, the Finance Ministry or the ministry responsible for the project would have the final say, after the commissioner had weighed not only the environmental aspects of cutting down trees but also the damage and any rise in costs caused to the developer if a felling permit were delayed.

The revised clauses require the commissioner to consider the views of the Finance Ministry, the ministry dealing with the specific project, and the National Infrastructure Committee, but appear to authorize the office to make the final decision, so long as the reasons are detailed.

The Finance Ministry responded that the various moves were designed to promote the development of important infrastructure while “creating a balance with many considerations, primarily environmental considerations.”

It added that the amendment to the clean air law was aimed at ensuring the continuity of electrical supply.

Discussions were taking place at the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee where all the arguments were being debated, the statement said.

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