The director general of the Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday that the government failed Israel’s “glorious” fertilizer industry by not setting up a manufacturing plant in the south of the country in time for the closing of an ammonia tank in Haifa.
In 2013, the government made a decision to shut down an ammonia tank in Haifa Bay by 2017 and set up a new production plant in the Negev instead, out of concerns for the safety of the citizens of Haifa.
In its decision, the government also committed to ensuring a continuous supply of the compound until the new production plant was up and running.
Ammonia is used by chemical manufacturers in Israel, including Haifa Chemicals Ltd., to make potassium nitrate, a fertilizer used by farmers in Israel and globally to grow flowers, fruit and vegetables.
Following the publication of a report commissioned by the city of Haifa that found the ammonia operations posed a serious risk to the population, an Israeli court has ordered the closure of the tank where the ammonia is stored upon arrival by tanker in Haifa Bay. Because a tender to set up the new plant in the Negev failed in 2016 due to a lack of bidders, the new production facility is far from being built, leaving the nation without a supply of ammonia and thousands of workers under threat of losing their jobs.
Haifa Chemicals has said its business cannot function without ammonia and is lobbying the government to find an alternative supply of the compound until a new manufacturing plant can built in the south of the country.
“When the government made that decision in 2013 the aim was not to close the industry, send thousands of workers home and give up two percent of industrial exports,” Eli Groner said at a briefing with reporters in Tel Aviv.
“I am afraid there is a miss-match of dates between the closure of the tank in Haifa and the setting up of the factory in the south and thus all the fertilizer industry in Israel, which is a glorious industry… this whole industry is in danger, and it is very sad.”
Groner said he believes the tank should be closed only after an alternative supply of ammonia is found for the companies that use the compound to produce fertilizers.
“The fact that a decision was made in 2013 to set up a new factory to produce ammonia in the Negev and we are now in April 2017 and nothing has happened, this is certainly an example of the government not meeting its targets,” he said.
The government should also take part in some of the costs of setting up the new ammonia plant, he said.
Hundreds of Haifa Chemicals Ltd. workers protested in the streets of Tel Aviv last week against the closing of an ammonia tank, which they say could put them out of their jobs.
Israel’s Supreme Court, which has been petitioned by Haifa Chemicals to delay the closure of the plant, said on Tuesday that a district court hearing set for April 6 on how to empty the tank should be held as scheduled. After that, and once the parties have submitted their various petitions, the Supreme Court will consider how to move forward.
Haifa Chemicals employs some 800 workers directly, and indirectly some additional 3,600 people are expected to be affected by the closure of operations, according to the Economy and Industry Ministry. The operations of Haifa Chemicals account for 2 percent of Israel’s industrial exports and 1% of total exports from Israel, the Manufacturers Association of Israel said in a February report.
The Haifa municipality has been lobbying for the closure of the plant after a report it commissioned found the ammonia operations pose a serious risk to the population. 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.
Environmental groups have lobbied for the closure of the tank and have said that Haifa Chemicals is cynically using the workers as a chip in its negotiations with the government.
The Times of Israel sent emails for comment to the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which was in charge of overseeing the setting up the new plant in the south, but they have yet to reply.