Vilnai Reassures – Experts Paint Worrisome Scenario

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While outgoing Minister of Homefront Affairs Matan Vilnai assures the nation “we are in the best situation ever” regarding homefront preparedness for missile attacks, some experts are far from being persuaded.

In actuality, the minister’s statements are perhaps carefully worded and quite accurate as a result, for he does not state the homefront is “ready” in absolute terms, but just in relative terms as compared to the past.

One of the fears pertains to incoming missiles fired across the border by Hizbullah into Haifa, home to major chemical plans and toxic chemical storage facilities. According to the daily Maariv, concerns are genuine and not related to chemical or biological weaponry, but to the storage of 12,000 tons of toxic gas in Haifa. The report speaks of the “blue and white threat created here, at home”, near the Port of Haifa. This threat according to report is to all the residents of Haifa and the Kraiyot.

While Vilnai speaks of 500 deaths in a war including missile attacks from a number of fronts lasting for 30 days, experts in Haifa paint a less encouraging picture, one that speaks of “thousands of dead and injured” resulting from a missile making a direct hit on an ammonia tank. The exact number would depend on numerous factors, including temperature, wind strength and direction and other weather conditions.

The experts point out that in past years when the situation was evaluated, addressing the 2,400 tons of ammonia leaking in the Haifa Gulf area, the death toll could reach 17,000 in addition to 77,000 casualties. Today’s scenario addresses 12,000 tons of ammonia, not 2,400! Estimates in shekels for the “health damage” from such an attack are placed at 30 billion NIS. Damage estimates to property also run in the tens of billions NIS.

International standards call for destroying such a storage tank after 20 years of service due to its compromised state resulting from temperature variances. The tank holding the 12,000 tons of ammonia has marked its 25th year of service. According to Prof. Amos Nota of Technion, this tank should go even without war concerns. Add the missile fears to the equation and there is true cause for major concern, as he questions why the ammonia storage tank is still in service.

The professor adds the tank has never undergone a thorough inspection because there is no storage area to place the ammonia while an inspection is conducted.

Back in 2002, then IDF Homefront Commander Major-General Yousef Mishlev conducted an inspection of the roof of the tank, with experts determining then, a decade ago, the roof of the tank should be fortified. A committee was appointed and in 2003, that committee ordered fortification for the roof in line with the recommendation and warning from the Technion professor.

Opponents cited that an exterior fortification would pose a hazard to incoming flights using the Haifa Airport. In 2006 IDF Homefront Commander Major-General Yitzhak Gershon announced the tank does not pose any threat.

Regarding wartime fears the military received a commitment that in time of war, the tank will be drained to diminish the amount of ammonia being stored.

Then came the Second Lebanon War. A report addressing the failures of the war released by the state comptroller points out that on the day the war began, as missiles were falling in that area, the ammonia tank was filled four times beyond its legal capacity. The tank was never emptied and it remained full four times past capacity throughout the war as missiles pounded Israel.

A session of the Knesset Audit Committee in 2009 records that the Homefront Command feels the likelihood of a missile striking the ammonia tank are low, resulting in the nonfeasance regarding this matter. At the time, IDF Lt.-Colonel Hadas Ben-Dov, in charge of hazardous materials assured committee members that the military was doing its job to prepare the homefront, adding 4,000 missiles hit the area during the war and we know the results. Today, the homefront appears to be relying on the same odds.

Today, years later, nothing has changed and the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and IDF Homefront Command continue pointing an accusatory finger at one another. In fact, experts warn the ammonia tank is a major concern, but far from the only one as other toxic chemicals are stored as well.

When asked by officials in the Tzalul organization in the summer of 2011 “What happens if the tank is hit by a missile,” the IDF chief of staff replied the odds of this occurring are very low, and even if it does, “the ammonia will not reach civilian population areas”. In another later dated October 2011, the chief of staff reiterated once again, “no additional fortification or protection is required”.

In an appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Subcommittee on Homefront Preparedness in October 2011, IDF Colonel Benny Shik, in charge of homefront fortification told committee members “While the ammonia is a dangerous substance, this is without a doubt not the biggest threat to Israelis today”.

The Tzalul non-profit organization is leading the grassroots battle against the ammonia storage facility. In a letter sent by the organization to the Ministry of Environmental Affairs in May 2012, it points out that in line with the decision made, the tank must be relocated to the Negev by 2015. Maariv adds that an official document that it received states the new facility must be up and running within 5 years. Haifa residents and environmental activists feel this will be delayed and the old outdated tank will be continuing in service for years to come.

Haifa Chemicals officials’ responded, explaining the ammonia tank is the “most protected of its type in the world” and it is an essential component of the national infrastructure, especially in a time of crisis.

The Homefront Command feels comfortable with the current level of fortification for the tank which meets standards and they are not concerned of a direct hit on the tank due to the unlikelihood of such an occurrence.

The Ministry of Environmental Affairs reports Minister Erdan is leading “a historic effort” to relocate the ammonia. Until such time this is accomplished, the ministry relies upon the means at its disposal towards minimizing the risk.

Haifa City Hall states Mayor Yonah Yahav feels the placement of the tank in the midst of major population centers is irresponsible and the city continues efforts to have it removed as expeditiously as possible.

(YWN – Israel Desk, Jerusalem)