Fire at notoriously polluting Chemical company

Feature story - 17 December, 2002
Spreading thick black smoke across the Haifa Bay area, a major fire broke out on Tuesday at the Haifa Chemicals factory near this northern coastal city in Israel. Two workers are reported injured in the fire which has resulted in clouds of toxic smoke being released but now appears to be under control.

Previous protests against the dumping of toxic sludge from industries lining the Kishon River

The fire started at 6:30 am on Tuesday morning in the fertiliser warehouse. According to fire officials a much worst fire was narrowly averted as hazardous flammable chemicals were stored close to the fertiliser warehouse. The commander of the fire department in Haifa, Moshe Ribak, said: "We were very lucky, because near to the burning warehouse there is another area that includes dangerous materials. We used a huge amount of water in order to stop the fire from spreading toward the area with the dangerous materials."

The fire was put out after five hours but the fire service is remaining on the scene in case the fire restarts in strong winds. The fire service suspects the fire may have been started by an explosion due to a failure at the plant.

This is not the first time Haifa Chemicals has been in the news. Haifa Chemicals is a US owned fertiliser company with revenues of US$280 million in 2000. Its factory along the bank of the Kishon river has been operating since 1966, and up to last year it discharged an average of five million litres of toxic effluents each day.

The river's noxious waters have changed the lives of many who have come in contact with them. Until two years ago the Israeli army used the waters of the Kishon river to train divers of a marine unit. The reasoning was, if these marine commandos can dive on a river as polluted as this, they can dive anywhere. Now at least 120 of them have cancer. The 200 or so fishermen of the area, who regularly have to replace parts of their boats corroded by the acidic water, show an astonishing cancer rate of 20 percent, and 19 have already died from cancer.

Although some reductions in the amount of effluents have been achieved after years of campaigning, the Environment Ministry has kept granting pollution permits to the Kishon industries regardless of past promises to stop. The 'solution' proposed to clean up the river is a bypass pipe to dump the toxic waste straight into the sea. Recently local fishermen and our activists showed up this ludicrous plan by returning some of the waste to the minister responsible for approving the pipeline.

In the meantime, a thick dark cloud covers the Haifa area from the recent fire. Rubi Gilad, the manager of operations at the Ministry of Environment, said: "If we find out that this was caused by negligence, the responsible person should sit in prison." Fine words from a Ministry that continues to permit these companies to contaminate the environment, in spite of a poor human health record in Haifa. The real action that should be taken is for these companies to stop polluting and shift to clean production processes.


12 Dec. 2002: Israeli fishermen make authorities face up to their actions

9 Dec 2002: Hidden victims of a poisoned river