Hezbollah chief last year threatened to target facility with missiles in next war

Hundreds of thousands of lives in danger from Haifa ammonia operation: report

12,000-ton storage container could ‘fall apart tomorrow’ or be attacked in a war, expert warns, creating a toxic suffocating cloud; managing company dismisses ‘fear-mongering’

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

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)

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the Haifa area are in life-threatening danger as a consequence of the port city’s ammonia storage operations, an expert report, submitted to the city council, warnedy.

If ruptured, the vast ammonia storage tank would suffocate 16,000 victims under a toxic cloud, the report said. And the tank could “fall apart tomorrow morning,” the report’s author, chemistry professor Ehud Keinan, said Tuesday.

During a press conference at the Haifa municipality hosted by Mayor Yona Yahav, Keinan explained the tank has four structurally weak points, two at its base, one on its roof, and one on a side wall. “If the tank breaks apart we are talking about 16,000 fatalities,” said Keinan.

Haifa's ammonia tank (screen capture/Channel 2)
Haifa’s ammonia tank (screen capture/Channel 2)

But an even worse danger, the report said, 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 the report.

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

“Israel’s psychological warfare is of no use against us,” Nasrallah said in a February, 2016 speech. As an example, Nasrallah said Israel “feared” the group’s cache of rockets were capable of striking the ammonia facilities in Haifa, an attack that he said would result in casualties equivalent to those that would be caused by a nuclear attack.

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.

“This would be exactly as a nuclear bomb, and we can say that Lebanon today has a nuclear bomb, seeing as any rocket that might hit these tanks is capable of creating a nuclear bomb effect,” he said.

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 the Negev desert. The order was never implemented.

Keinan wrote the report along with ten other experts. Its findings were presented to the Haifa municipality several months ago, but were made public on Tuesday.

Haifa Mayor Yahav said at the press conference that “if this tank was in Dizengoff [Street in Tel Aviv], it would have been moved a long time ago.”

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (in white shirt), argues with a man in the city's Kiryat Eliezer neighborhood. (Phil Sussman /Flash90)
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav (in white shirt) (Phil Sussman /Flash90)

“This is a call to arms, life or death,” he said. “A million people are in danger in the [Haifa] bay [area], two million in danger from the sea.”

Yahav called on the cabinet to hold a discussion on the reports findings.

The ammonia ship arrives once a month and anchors in the Kishon Harbor, where it is unloaded over the period of a day. It holds 16,700 tons of ammonia and delivers about 10,000 to the tank each time. Its arrival schedule can be obtained in advance, the Haaretz daily reported Tuesday.

The ship has five tanks, and a rupture of any of then would be a disaster, according to the report. If all five were damaged, the resulting toxic cloud would cover the entire Haifa area with a deadly hot ammonia gas for some eight hours, suffocating to death anyone caught without special breathing equipment.

The report has been submitted to the High Court of Justice as part of a legal dispute between Haifa Group, a fertilizer producer that operates the tank, and the Haifa municipality.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the report by saying it would review its findings with security and industry officials.

Haifa Group dismissed the report as “fear-mongering” and accused Keinan of basing his findings on outdated checks carried out at the site 40 years ago.

“The mayor of Haifa is deliberately misleading the public and making cynical use of the report and its conclusions that were already rejected and completely invalidated by security officials in charge of dealing with the ammonia tank. It would be better for him to invest his time in improving [the city’s] failing education and welfare systems than to spend his time making false provocations.”

According to the report, only three percent of the ammonia that comes through Israel is used in the country. It largely comes from Ukraine, and is then exported around the world.

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