The chemical refineries in Haifa: One leak too many?

The chemical refineries in Haifa: One leak too many?

Explosive gas was discovered over the weekend leaking from a pipe directly under city streets, only 500 meters from homes. The new mayor has signaled she won’t tolerate it

Israel environment ministry workers spray water into the sewers under a commercial area trying to disperse explosive gas that leaked from the Haifa Bay chemical refineries, May 18, 2019. (Ministry of Environmental Protection)
Israel environment ministry workers spray water into the sewers under a commercial area trying to disperse explosive gas that leaked from the Haifa Bay chemical refineries, May 18, 2019. (Ministry of Environmental Protection)

Although no one was injured, the gas leak that was discovered over the weekend outside of Haifa’s industrial zone is an incident that, with the passage of time, could turn out to have significant implications.

The first reason for this is that Haifa has new leadership with a new style. On Saturday, Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem quickly announced a zero-tolerance policy on industrial mishaps: Either be good neighbors, she said, or don’t be here.

Industry officials have claimed for years that factories and residents can live side by side in the developed world, and that is correct.

But Kalisch-Rotem’s declaration addresses this point of view directly: If you want this country to be like Europe, she was saying, then act like Europeans. If you want to do slipshod work like Israelis, don’t do it near my residents. Sarit Golan-Steinberg, an attorney and chairwoman of the Haifa Association of Cities and the Environment, and MK Miki Haimovich joined her, issuing firm statements of their own.

It should be recalled that this assertive discourse comes after the presentation, several months ago, of a report by the Israeli office of the respected American consulting firm McKinsey to the Finance Ministry. According to the report, it is possible and even desirable to remove the heavy chemical industry from the Haifa Bay region within approximately a decade. In light of this, any malfunction of the factories, and certainly one that causes the closure of main thoroughfares for days, is playing with fire — pun intended.

Illustrative – View of a fire that broke out at the oil refineries in Haifa on December 25, 2016. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

Another unusual aspect of this malfunction is the location: It took place outside the area of the factories, directly below the city streets and only 500 meters (550 yards) from a residential area. After a round-the-clock cleanup, Environment Ministry officials gave the green light late Sunday afternoon to re-open a four square block commercial area that had been closed since the leak was discovered.

Haifa’s residents are accustomed to seeing unusual plumes of smoke coming from the factory smokestacks or hearing about leaks that were discovered inside the industrial complex. But this time it happened literally right under their feet.

Environmental activists from Haifa usually compare the threat posed by the industry to the threat posed by terror groups to the residents of the Gaza periphery communities. If malfunctions inside the factories that leak outside are likened to “trickles” of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip — as in, significant but not generally devastating — then a gas leak in a pipe that passes through the city is comparable to the devastating threat posed by cross-border underground terror tunnels.

In 2016 the head of the Hezbollah terror group, Hassan Nasrallah, said a strike on an ammonia storage facility that has since been moved from Haifa’s refinery area would have an impact similar to nuclear attack and cause tens of thousands of deaths in Haifa.

Einat Kalisch Rotem, mayor of Haifa. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The six-kilometer pipe that developed the leak carries a mixture of gases from the Oil Refineries (Bazan) in Haifa Bay to the Dor Chemicals plant. Once the gas has been used in the plant, it is sent back to Bazan through a parallel pipe. The malfunction took place in the return pipe. Both pipes are under the full responsibility of Dor Chemicals, which an official in the Environmental Protection Ministry described Saturday as “a problematic company that is in our focus.”

Indeed, two senior managers of Dor Chemicals were convicted in early 2018 over a gas leak from an underground pipe, and were fined by Haifa’s District Court. The plant itself was fined NIS 150,000 ($42,000) for the malfunction.

Another disturbing aspect of the malfunction has to do with the timing of its discovery. Several days ago, there was a wave of complaints from Haifa residents of a suspicious odor coming from the plants. Firefighters arrived with measuring and monitoring equipment, and found nothing unusual. Oddly, the Environmental Protection Ministry was not involved at all. In other words, it is likely that the leak, in this case, began long before the weekend, and it was only by sheer luck that it was discovered before the gas caught fire or exploded.

Haifa’s industrial area. (Avishag Shaar Yashuv/Flash90)

Hydrocarbon gas can be very dangerous in a home environment as well. A man and woman were killed in Eilat when a gas balloon exploded in their apartment this past weekend. If the responsibility for maintaining the gas pipelines and balloons in our own environment falls upon each and every one of us, it falls even more strongly upon the large companies. If the plants want to stay in the Haifa Bay area, they will have to convince the city’s residents that they are responsible and safe neighbors. For now, that isn’t working very well.

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