Nobel chemistry laureate rules out possibility of Beirut-like explosion in Haifa
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InterviewIsrael hasn't put all of its eggs in one basket, he says

Nobel chemistry laureate rules out possibility of Beirut-like explosion in Haifa

Contradicting warnings that Lebanon disaster is a wake-up call for northern port city, Dan Shechtman says ‘people in Haifa die slowly from air pollution’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Haifa Bay's industrial area, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)
Haifa Bay's industrial area, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The explosion in Beirut on Tuesday that killed over 100 people in minutes and injured thousands, while laying waste to large parts of the city, will not happen in Israel, a Nobel Prize chemistry laureate told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“We don’t expect explosions in Haifa [in Israel’s north, home to the country’s biggest industrial estate],” said Prof. Dan Shechtman of Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, who received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“In Haifa, people die slowly from air pollution,” he added, in a biting criticism of government environmental policy.

Shechtman was one of a group of Technion academics who, together with then-city mayor Yona Yahav, nonprofit organizations such as Zalul, and residents, campaigned for years and, with High Court support, finally succeeded in 2017 in forcing Haifa Chemicals to empty a large ammonia tank in the Haifa Bay industrial area.

The area is still home to dozens of factories dealing with oil and chemicals, as well as storage facilities for oil, gas and other industrial substances.

A map of the Haifa Bay and nearby residential areas. (Google Earth)

“In Beirut, they had a storage area containing material which exploded with ten percent of the force of Hiroshima,” Shechtman said.

“In Haifa, let’s say there’s an accident or a war. There will be fires — and fires can cause serious pollution — but not explosions, because the most dangerous thing in the area in civilian use is liquefied gas, which is held in several places in Haifa and Kiryat Ata (northeast of Haifa) and in Ashkelon (on Israel’s southern coast). If that is harmed, it will go up in flames and create a big fire but not an explosion.”

He added: “In Kiryat Ata, and probably other places too, the containers are protected by concrete walls that are higher than the containers themselves.”

Shechtman said Israel has plenty of ammonium nitrite — the material widely used as a fertilizer that exploded in Beirut’s port after lying in a warehouse for years “like a time bomb.”

“In Israel, it’s not concentrated in a particular place. There are small amounts all over the country. You don’t put all of your eggs in one basket,” he said.

The real danger, he said, was the pollution plaguing the northern city, home to some 900,000.

President Reuven Rivlin, left, Wolf Foundation acting chairman Prof. Dan Shechtman, center, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the announcement of the 2019 Wolf Prizes on January 16, 2019. (Mark Neiman/GPO)

Shechtman explained that with Haifa backing onto the Carmel mountain range, “conditions are created in which hot air rises with the pollution but cannot go beyond a certain height so it produces a layer. It’s very dangerous because all the pollution is trapped under it and Haifa is notorious for this happening from time to time.

“I once flew in a helicopter over Haifa and I saw this layer, called an inversion layer, looking sideways. It was kilometers long. It’s a thick yellow layer lying above Haifa, which is unbelievably dirty. It’s very bad news.”

A year ago, a state comptroller report stated that residents of Haifa and the surrounding metropolitan area were being exposed to carcinogenic pollutants just as much as when a national plan was developed and accepted by the Environmental Protection Ministry in 2015.

The comptroller noted that a 2014 report from his office had found that the cancer rate in Haifa was 15 percent higher than the national average, and that asthma among children was twice the national average. Since then, the rate had been growing, as had the prevalence of heart and respiratory diseases, he said.

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