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At long last, a breath of fresh air for Haifa

The plan to create a 'high-tech Riviera' will give residents a reprieve from the polluting oil refineries and petrochemical industry that make them sick
View of the water cooling towers at the Haifa oil refinery on June 12, 2020, the day one of them collapsed. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)
View of the water cooling towers at the Haifa oil refinery on June 12, 2020, the day one of them collapsed. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

The cabinet’s decision this week to phase out the polluting industries in Haifa Bay is nothing less than historic: Since the 1930s, the oil refineries and petrochemical production have created two environmental realities in Israel, the one in Haifa with highly toxic air pollutant concentrations, excess morbidity and mortality…and the one for everyone else. The government ruling means that this will finally change.

The decision was months in the making, and along with my co-chairs of the Knesset Haifa Bay Caucus, I have followed its progress closely. Unfortunately, during the last few weeks, some critical components were left on the cutting room floor due to economic concerns expressed by agencies involved in negotiations. But even so, the proverbial glass remains far more half-full than half-empty.

The decision is designed to implement an alternative vision for this century-old industrial zone. The proposed “Bay of Innovation” plan seeks to convert the area directly north of Haifa into a high-tech Riviera on our northern Mediterranean coast. The economic advantages of the program were quantified in 2020 by the international consultant McKenzie group as being highly lucrative. And in June 2021, a committee of all relevant, government ministry directors confirmed its advantages. Ironically, it was not the cost to the health of Israeli citizens that moved decision-makers to approve the closing of heavy industry in Haifa, but projections of the associated real estate bonanza.

As always, the devil is in the details. And there are a lot: For starters, the dilapidated, TASHAN oil tanks on the Kiryat Haim coasts are to be closed by 2026. These tanks have been around for close to 90 years. They are leaky and dangerous. Older residents in the adjacent neighborhood have cancer rates 17 times above the national average. Many remain trapped in their homes as housing values in the high exposure zones are too low to allow them to buy elsewhere. Within five years, their air will be dramatically improved – and their homes will finally have access to a restored beachfront. Other factories, such as the Deshanim facilities are also expected to be shuttered at that time.

Site visit by author at Haifa’s Oil Refineries, now officially to be closed within ten years.

To give a boost to Haifa Bay’s “New Deal,” a hospital will be built in nearby Kiryat Bialik within seven years. The train tracks that separate the lower Haifa Bay from the waterfront also will soon be tunneled, allowing Haifa neighborhoods near the port to finally enjoy open, coastal accessibility. And the plan also endorses a massive metropolitan park along the increasingly rehabilitated Kishon River – a park that is slated to be even larger than Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park.

Environmental advocates are paid to worry – and they have no shortage of concerns regarding the government decision and what is missing in it. For example, the operational decision does not specifically give a date for ending oil refining in Haifa – even though the “explanatory comments” talk about a ten-year target. Moreover, without a detailed roadmap, timetable and funding commitment, it is not yet clear how Israel will successfully maintain “energy continuity” – and establish the storage facilities it will need for holding liquid petroleum gas reserves. Indeed, the tentative plan at present would move tanks that store imported oil into the Israel Oil Refineries and connect the plant with the oil pipeline from Ashdod. The associated investment creates the impression that the refineries are not going anywhere. It would be tragic for the well-intentioned decision to produce such a result.

The Environment, Climate and Health Knesset subcommittee that I chair will continue to monitor implementation to ensure that this doesn’t happen. The somewhat amorphous deadlines in the government blueprint are justified by the Finance Ministry, which will have to bargain with the oil refineries on the compensation the government will need to pay them for moving out before their hundred-year lease expires. Setting a final date presumably weakens their negotiating position. Regardless of the final price tag, the Finance Ministry will also have to come up with the funds necessary for the alternative infrastructure that will allow Israel to import refined petroleum products and move to renewables.

Ready or not, the climate crisis is upon us. This means that energy systems are changing around the world. The government’s decision to phase out oil refining is part of this process. It is critical if we are to move to an economy based on clean electricity. For the beleaguered residents of Haifa, change cannot come soon enough. Epidemiological studies confirm that every year thousands of residents are sick annually due to air pollution, children are more than twice as likely to be asthmatic and at least a hundred residents die early each year. The government decision confirms that trend need not be destiny. Haifa’s future will be cleaner than its past.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a member of Israel's Knesset representing the Blue and White Party, a veteran environmental activist, and an academic based at Tel Aviv University's Department of Public Policy.
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