‘Israel’s dump’ now trailblazer for a better environment
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‘Israel’s dump’ now trailblazer for a better environment

Ramat Hovav, once an environmental minefiled, is reborn as an eco-park -- and a center for clean-burning and alternative energy projects

Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom (center) prepares to turn on the connection that will pump natural gas into a Ramat Hovav factory, the first factory in Israel to use natural gas as its source of power (Photo credit: Courtesy Phibro Israel)
Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom (center) prepares to turn on the connection that will pump natural gas into a Ramat Hovav factory, the first factory in Israel to use natural gas as its source of power (Photo credit: Courtesy Phibro Israel)

The Ramat Hovav industrial zone in the south, home to the country’s main toxic waste disposal facility and several giant chemical plants, and for decades synonymous with cancer-causing pollution and contamination, has undergone an eco-transformation.

Two major events heralding this development took place there this week: The first factory in Israel to use natural gas to power its operations was hooked up to a new national gas grid, and a site that will be Israel’s largest solar energy generation field was officially inaugurated.

Israel has long sought to bring large numbers of residents to the Negev. The Defense Ministry plans to move much of its back-office work to Beersheba, and the IDF is setting up a major new army base (“Bootcamp City,” where new recruits will be housed and trained) nearby.  Although the government resolved over a decade ago to clean up Ramat Hovav, these projects, which are expected to bring thousands more residents to the sunny south, gave that resolution a new urgency.

Quietly, an environmental revolution has been taking place in the infamous region, located 12 kilometers (about 7 miles) outside Beersheba. According to government officials and environmental activists alike, Ramat Hovav is now a place where people can feel safe breathing the air and drinking the water.

 

Things were much different not too long ago, though. Ramat Hovav is the center of Israel’s chemical industry and was once considered perhaps the most polluted place in the country, where workers and even frequent visitors were considered at high risk of contracting cancer.

The industrial zone was built in the mid-1970s, when regulation was lax — the idea being to locate the hazardous activities of chemical, pesticide, and other environment-unfriendly enterprises in the then-sparsely populated south. For years, chemical factories discharged their refuse into a stream that runs through the area, with chemicals leaching into the ground and flowing out to other parts of the Negev and into the underground water table. The area was also a dumping ground for toxic waste from all around the country, with hundreds of barrels of decaying substances posing a health hazard for thousands of workers and residents.

By the late 1990s, industrial accidents, fires, and a higher incidence of medical problems among Bedouin living in the area — who sued the state for damages — provided the government with the impetus needed for a major cleanup plan. In 2003, a $90 million cleanup plan was authorized for Ramat Hovav. Under the plan, toxic chemicals that were stored in barrels at a large dumping site were incinerated, and evaporation pools where chemical waste was stored were completely rebuilt, with the infrastructure – reinforced concrete, pipes, and disposal – shored up to the point where the tainted liquids no longer leach into the soil.

Now, the land on which the industrial zone sits is healthy enough to support Park Hadikalim (a palm tree park with over 100 trees planted earlier this year), and the air is now clean enough for the local council to run an annual bikeathon. A name change, too, signals the fresh start — no longer Ramat Hovav (Hovav Heights), a term synonymous with old-industry pollution, the industrial zone is now known as the Neot Hovav (Hovav Oasis) Eco-Industrial Park.

Plans that look good on paper often leave something to be desired in the field, but environmental activists who have for years fought tooth and nail to get the government to move on Ramat Hovav say that improvement is in the air — literally. One activist, who requested anonymity because he works in a government oversight capacity to ensure that companies follow strict environmental rules, said that “things have improved so much that you can now breathe the air in Ramat Hovav without choking. In the past, there was a terrible odor, due to the chemical evaporation, but new infrastructure has brought that odor under control.”

The activist, who for years was an attorney with a large Israeli environmental group, personally prepared dozens of petitions and court cases against companies operating in Ramat Hovav for violating pollution laws and against the government for failing to enforce the law. There are still some cases pending, the activist reported, but most have been resolved and very few new ones have been opened recently.

According to the activist, “the government has really put a lot of work into cleaning up Ramat Hovav, and with the connection of factories to the natural gas line that is being set up, things should improve even more.” Whether it’s because of the pressure to get the area ready for the new Defense Ministry and IDF facilities or a true commitment to improving environmental quality is irrelevant, noted the activist.

Ramat Hovav is now leading the way in some of the eco-issues Israel as a whole is seeking to tackle. One of these issues is figuring out ways to utilize cheaper, clean-burning natural gas — which Israel has plenty of — to replace more expensive and more polluting oil. Koffolk Fine Chemicals on Tuesday was the first factory to connect to a new national gas network that is expected to supply power to factories around the country.

In a ceremony turning the gas switch on, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom (who is also minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee) said that besides its environmentally sound behavior, Koffolk could expect to save as much as half of its energy costs in the coming year.

“Every company that connects to the natural gas network that is being established helps Israel to compete more effectively, lowering the costs of electricity and water. And if the costs of electricity and water are lower, the cottage cheese we buy at the market will be cheaper too,” said Shalom, alluding to the protests two years ago by hundreds of thousands of Israeli consumers triggered by the high price of cottage cheese.

Shalom also attended the opening of a new solar energy field to be built in the industrial zone. The NIS 350 million (almost $100 million) project is expected to generate 37.5 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply 15,000 Israeli households with power annually. The park is being built and operated by Energix Renewable Energies, an Israeli renewable energy firm that installs field and rooftop photovoltaic energy systems.

Speaking at that event, Shalom said that “renewable energy resources are the future of the electricity sector in Israel.” Despite the plentitude of natural gas in the Mediterranean, said Shalom, “we are pinning our hopes on renewable energy, which we expect will provide 10% of Israel’s energy needs by the end of the decade.”

Gas, as plentiful as it is, will eventually run out, said Shalom — but in Ramat Hovav, especially with its cleaner environment, the sun will go on shining strongly for a long time to come.

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