Plants owned by prominent family cost public health $340m in 2018 — report
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Plants owned by prominent family cost public health $340m in 2018 — report

Analysis of open source data by environmental NGO Adam Teva V’Din shows selected Ofer family factories emitted from a tenth to a third of industry’s main polluting gases last year

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

View of chimneys from a refinery in Haifa Bay (Photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)
View of chimneys from a refinery in Haifa Bay (Photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)

Factories connected to the Ofer family, one of Israel’s richest, were responsible for at least NIS 1.2 billion ($340 million) worth of damage to public health caused by air pollution last year, a new analysis has found.

The environmental NGO Adam Teva V’Din charges that the family’s main oil refining, mineral extraction and chemical plants emitted more than a third of reported sulfur dioxide emissions countrywide, more than a fifth of pollution caused by large particulate matter (particles of pollution), just under a fifth of all nitrous oxides, 17 percent of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and nearly 10% of benzene, which is known to cause cancer.

The percentages relate to pollution from industry alone. They do not include emissions related to energy production (electricity) or transport.

The release of the pollutants is legally allowed within the framework of emissions permits given by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Idan Ofer, one of the two sons of the late Israeli shipping magnate and philanthropist Sammy Ofer, specializes in the oil, mineral and chemicals side of the family business. He is ranked 488th in the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index for November 5, 2019, with a total net worth of $4.25 billion. In June, the Haaretz newspaper ranked him the ninth-richest person in Israel.

Ofer is the majority shareholder of the Israel Corporation, the biggest holding company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Israel Corporation’s current core holdings include a 46% stake in Israel Chemicals (ICL) — which mines potash, phosphates, bromine and magnesium and produces fertilizers and other chemicals — and a 33% stake in the Bazan Group Oil Refineries Ltd, whose subsidiaries produce petroleum-related products such as plastic.

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

According to Adam Teva V’Din, the main polluting factories belonging to ICL and Bazan Group emitted 5.4 million tonnes (metric tons) of carbon dioxide last year, costing the public purse a massive NIS 707.5 ($202.4) million in damage to public health. Carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, is one of the key contributors to climate change and global warming and also contributes to acid rain.

The plants also released 3,972.5 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide — costing the public purse NIS 225.3 ($64.5) million — out of 10,906 tonnes reported by the biggest factories nationally. Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems and have been linked to premature births. It irritates the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, respiratory system and eyes, and, at high levels, can cause tissue damage. When combined with particulate matter (see below), it can provoke respiratory disease and exacerbate heart and vascular disease.

PM10 stands for particulate matter that is 10 micrometers or less in diameter. (A micrometer is one-millionth of a meter. By comparison, a human hair measures around 75 micrometers). According to the report, Ofer factories emitted 635.3 million tonnes of it in 2018 — costing the public NIS 62.3 ($17.8) million, out of 2,851 tonnes registered countrywide.

Because of their size, particulates can bypass the human body’s natural filters, penetrate the airways and reach the lungs, contributing to death from obstructive pulmonary disease — a lung disease characterized by long-term breathing problems and poor airflow, lung infections, heart disease and cancer. A multi-year study conducted by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health indicates a link between high levels of particulate matter and death, the report said, adding that the World Health Organization agrees with many studies that have shown that there is no level of particulates that is safe for human health.

Israel's richest man, Idan Ofer, with his late father, Sammy Ofer (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Idan Ofer, with his late father, Sammy Ofer. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Ofer factories emitted 3,709.4 million tonnes of nitrogen oxides large year, costed at NIS 150 million ($43 million), the report charged. Countrywide, the biggest factories reported a total of 19,610 tonnes. Nitrous oxides — a subgroup of nitrogen oxides better known as laughing gas, contribute to acid rain and global warming, help cause or worsen respiratory diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and — when mixed with volatile organic compounds during periods of sunlight — form smog, which can damage the lungs of children, asthma sufferers and people who work outside.

Many volatile organic compounds — mixtures of organic substances containing mainly carbon and hydrogen — are recognized or suspected of causing cancer or gene mutation. When combined with nitrous oxides and other gases, they help to create “photochemical smog” which damages public health and the environment. Visible as a brownish haze, it is particularly noticeable during the mornings and afternoons when it hangs over warm, densely populated cities. The Ofer companies, according to the report, emitted 1,427.6 million tons of VOCs — causing damage worth more than NIS 30 ($8.6) million last year. The total emissions reported were 8,094 tonnes.

The report also gives selected measurements for two carcinogens — benzene and formaldehyde — that are not costed for damage to public health by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The Ofer companies were responsible for releasing 2.3 tons of benzene, out of 33 tonnes reported countrywide, and for 1.7 tons of formaldehyde (no national figure is given).

The calculation method

Across Israel, the biggest companies (currently 572 of them) must report annually, by law, to the Environmental Protection Ministry on the quantity of dozens of different kinds of gases emitted by their factories. On this basis, the ministry publishes an industrial emissions register once a year. The most recent was published last month and covers the year 2018.

ICL’s Dead Sea Works. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Using the 2018 figures, Adam Teva V’Din zoomed in on 11 Ofer family companies in Israel (others operate overseas) and on five of the main gases produced either by burning fossil fuels or during the course of industrial processes.

The report’s author, Dr Arie Vanger, who is responsible for air-related issues at the NGO, then calculated the damage to society of each pollutant according to prices published annually by the ministry, most recently in January 2019.

The ministry currently calculates so-called external costs on the basis of damage to public health alone and does not take into account other forms of damage such as airborne, coal-related blackening of buildings or days lost to the economy because of sickness. (The ministry is currently re-evaluating the way it determines the costs). To that extent, says Vanger, the calculation underestimates the true damage. Furthermore, the ministry only prices seven out of the much larger number of gases that are emitted so that the real cost is likely to be higher.

Dr Arie Vanger, responsible for air-related issues at the environmental NGO, Adam, Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

The role of Ofer factories in pollution may be further underestimated in the sense that Adam Teva V’Din reviewed the main — not all of — the family’s polluting plants in Israel. Furthermore, it focused on industrial air emissions, not other kinds of environmental damage, such as pollution of water or soil.

The report does not take the Ofer family’s percentage holding in each factory into account. Its aim, says Vanger, is to survey the quantity of emissions rather than apportion responsibility,

Last month saw the submission at the Beersheba District Court of  the biggest environmental class action suit in Israeli history. That demanded that two chemical factories in southern Israel, that form part of ICL, pay NIS 1.4 billion ($400 million) in damages for polluting groundwater and a popular spring and stream at a nature reserve near the Dead Sea.

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