Israel Seeks Ammonia Solution as Report Warns of Toxic Threat

  • Haifa plant to be emptied amid Hezbollah threat to attack
  • Committee presents alternatives to continue ammonia production

The Israeli government is scrambling to help one of the country’s biggest exporters stay in business after a report found its operations in a major urban area put thousands of lives at risk.

The Haifa District Court had ordered the country’s only ammonia storage tank closed by Saturday, after the report commissioned by the Haifa municipality found the 31-year-old facility could rupture at any moment and kill as many as 16,000 people in Israel’s third-largest city. Hundreds of thousands could die in a toxic cloud if the ship that delivers ammonia to the plant each month were attacked, the report said.

The 12,000-ton facility, owned by the government and operated by Haifa Chemicals Ltd., has already been drained except for about 400 tons, according to a spokesman for the company, Israel’s largest consumer of ammonia. Israel’s High Court on Wednesday stayed the order to empty the final tons until judges hear Haifa Chemicals’s appeal, and Haaretz reported the company is seeking permission to refill the tank. The government has convened a group of industry and security experts to seek alternative solutions for storing the chemical.

Beyond concerns of a freak accident, the tank quandary reflects the growing threat to strategic assets in Israel’s north. Hezbollah, the militant political organization in Lebanon, has threatened to strike the ammonia tank or an offshore natural gas site critical to the Israeli economy. The Iran-backed group has been upgrading its missile stocks since its last war with Israel in 2006, and the Haifa district, home to about one million people, is well within its range.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that having this kind of toxic material in an area full of residents is not the best place to hold it,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a project director at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former research head of Israeli military intelligence. 

Death Cloud

Ammonia is a key ingredient in fertilizer production and industrial refrigeration, used for example by hospitals and food warehouses, but becomes highly poisonous when exposed to open air. Whether or not Hezbollah can actually hit the tank -- which in the event of war would likely be protected by Israel’s anti-missile defense systems -- “the most important thing for them is to turn it into a tool to sow fear and gain deterrence vis-a-vis Israel,” Kuperwasser said.

Down the road, Haifa Chemicals and Israel Chemicals Ltd., which consumes about one-fourth of the country’s ammonia, could team up to build a plant by the sparsely populated Dead Sea, Haifa Chemicals’s spokesman said. But such plans are at least three years from execution, he added.

While the authorities rush to find stop-gap measures, Haifa Chemicals has access to enough ammonia for only about six to eight days’ worth of production, the spokesman said. The company, which has about $700 million in sales and contributes about 1 percent of Israel’s exports, cannot function without the chemical, the spokesman said. The company has some 600 employees in Israel and 200 more abroad.

"Industry needs ammonia. We have about 100 businesses -- not only businesses but also hospitals -- that need ammonia on a daily basis,” said Nir Kantor, director of the Chemical, Pharmaceutical and Environmental Society at the Manufacturers Association of Israel.
“You can’t close this kind of plant in one day.”

Labor Dispute

One option could be to import ammonia from Jordan, but excluding ammonia from the Israeli economy altogether isn’t feasible, Kantor said.

Haifa Chemicals is a privately owned subsidiary of the Trump Group, founded by brothers Jules and Eddie Trump, who are not related to the U.S. president. 

Hundreds of company workers blocked a major Tel Aviv intersection Tuesday, protesting the court ruling they say will cost them their jobs. Government officials and leaders of the union representing company employees traded accusations of cynicism and fear-mongering. 

The Histadrut labor federation threatened a factory strike next month, saying the court decision threatens the livelihood of hundreds of workers and their families. The Prime Minister’s Office, Finance Ministry and Israel Chemicals all refused to comment.

“We are talking about a nightmare scenario and a severe blow to the country’s periphery," Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn said in an e-mailed statement. “I call on all sides to roll up their sleeves and converge to find a real solution that will prevent the loss of jobs."

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