Thousands protest ahead of ruling on Haifa ammonia tank

Demonstrators block roads, high schools cancel classes as judges decide whether to renew permit for hazardous facility

The ammonia storage tank in the northern city of Haifa. (Courtesy of Environmental Protection Ministry)
The ammonia storage tank in the northern city of Haifa. (Courtesy of Environmental Protection Ministry)

Thousands of protesters filled the streets of Haifa Sunday morning demanding the closure of an ammonia storage tank in the northern coastal city, hours before a court ruling on whether the facility will be allowed to continue to operate.

Approximately 3,000 people blocked roads around the city’s district court as, inside, judges considered a petition by the Haifa Group against a government decision to cancel the permit for the tank.

In addition to the protesters, high schools in Haifa and the surrounding cities went on strike, with all classes canceled from 8 am to noon.

Following recent legal wrangling between Haifa Group — a fertilizer producer that operates the ammonia storage tank — and the city, the Environmental Protection Ministry announced on Wednesday it would not renew the permit for the Haifa Group’s tank.

Last week, the Haifa Court for Local Affairs gave Haifa Group until February 26 to remove the liquid-form chemical from its tank on the bay. An earlier ruling had given the company until February 22 to clear out the container.

After initially signaling that it would abide by the ruling, the company filed a last-minute appeal, slamming the Haifa municipality as “demagogues” trying to “sow fear among the public.”

The Haifa District Court is expected to give a final decision later Sunday.

Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin gives a statement to the media at the Knesset on December 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin gives a statement to the media at the Knesset on December 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) said last week that he reached his decision “in light of the fact that there is no solution on the horizon” and because “the [ammonia] tank places the public and the environment in danger, which we cannot abide.”

He also criticized the Haifa Group for failing to pursue alternatives, such as his predecessor Avi Gabbai’s recommendation that the facility be relocated to the southern Negev desert.

Elkin said that in light of concerns regarding the financial impact of the facility’s closure, the Environmental Protection Ministry would grant “a period of three months for the Economy Ministry [to make] arrangements for alternative sources of ammonia purchases.” The Economy Ministry last week requested a three-month stay on carrying out the ruling in order to review the potential harm to industry in the area.

In its arguments against closing the facility, the Haifa Group said that emptying the ammonia storage tank would “eliminate the operations of whole industrial sectors” and deal a serious blow to the local economy. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said in a Facebook post earlier this month that such arguments were an attempt to threaten the city and its residents.

The Haifa municipality submitted its petition for the closure of the ammonium facility following the publication last month of a report it commissioned that found the port city’s ammonia operations posed a serious risk to the population.

The report was also submitted to the High Court of Justice as part of a legal dispute between Haifa Group and the municipality.

If ruptured, the vast ammonia storage tank would suffocate 16,000 victims under a toxic cloud, the report said. The tank could “fall apart tomorrow morning,” the report’s author, chemistry professor Ehud Keinan, said at a press conference to release the report on January 31, held at the municipality.

Haifa's industrial zone. The ammonia tank is visible on the jetty jutting into the sea at the right. (Shay Levy/Flash90)
Haifa’s industrial zone. The ammonia tank is visible on the jetty jutting into the sea at the right. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

But an even worse danger, the report said, is posed by a delivery ship that arrives at the Haifa container once a month. If its cargo of ammonia were released to the air, it could kill as many as 600,000 people in the bay area, according to the report.

Last year, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to target Haifa’s ammonia facilities with rockets in the next conflict with Israel. He quoted an unnamed Israeli official saying that a strike on the northern city’s ammonia storage tanks would cause tens of thousands of fatalities.

In a speech earlier this month, Nasrallah claimed credit for the court decision to shut down the ammonia storage tank, while also calling on Israel to dismantle the Dimona nuclear facility, which he threatened the Lebanese Shiite terror group would strike in a future conflict with the Jewish state.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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