Ombudsman says Israel failing to curb Haifa pollution, despite government claims

Four years after national plan was approved, there has been little to no progress in reducing pollutants in country’s third-largest city, comptroller finds

Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Pollution in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, April 15, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The Haifa Bay area remains one of the most polluted places in Israel, according to a new State Comptroller report that cast doubt on the government’s claims that chemical and industrial waste was being curbed.

It was State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s last periodical report before he ends his term next month.

The report said there was little to no difference in Haifa’s air quality in the last four years, and that residents of Israel’s third-largest city and the surrounding metropolitan area — about 900,000 people — 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.

Haifa Bay is a center of industry for the country and home to Israel’s largest port as well as oil refineries and other factories. Environmentalists have long complained that pollutants from industrial areas were damaging the health of local residents.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira attends the presentation of the State Comptroller’s report at the Knesset, March 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

The comptroller report came just two weeks after an Environmental Protection Ministry report claimed that the national plan to reduce pollution from the extensive industrial zones in the Haifa Bay area had seen many dangerous pollutants slashed by more than half.

At the time, the volunteer Haifa Environmental Research Center rejected the findings and said the report had been “saturated with manipulated information, questionable analysis of data and a lack of transparency as a policy.”

The comptroller’s report cited significant shortcomings in the supervision mechanisms, making it impossible for the government to routinely monitor the rate of pollution emanating from the many factories and refineries in the Haifa Bay and elsewhere.

View of the oil refineries in the bay area of the northern city of Haifa, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The comptroller accused the Environmental Protection Ministry of failing to utilize all its administrative and criminal law enforcement tools against offenders, particularly in Haifa, where it said there was almost no enforcement of anti-pollution laws. It also accused the BAZAN Group, which owns and runs many of the factories in Haifa, of numerous breaches and failures in recent years, attesting to the ministry’s weakness in reining it in.

The report also said the Israel Fire and Rescue Services is unprepared to deal with a potential leak of dangerous substances that could create a chain reaction with nearby factories in Haifa.

Shapira said the continued failure to deal with the pollution in the Haifa Bay necessitated the formation of an independent commission of inquiry that will present its recommendations to the government regarding the future of the area — including whether the industrial zone should be moved to a non-populated location.

The Environmental Protection Ministry commented on the report, saying that “reducing the pollution is the most important thing for the public and the most essential issue on the agenda of the ministry.”

The ministry added that it “supports every measure that will lead to the improvement of the air quality in the Haifa metropolis, including relocating the factories.”

Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem at the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem, who has waged a battle against the polluting factories, called the report “shocking and hard to process, particularly for those who lost their loved ones.

“The report highlights severe negligence over many years, making it seem like this isn’t a mistake. This is a failure that has claimed the lives of thousands,” she said.

“The government must approve a comprehensive plan for the Haifa Bay area that pays attention to all the developmental issues and includes all the different aspects, including the environmental and health aspects.”

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