JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The mayor of Haifa implored Israel’s prime minister on Tuesday to remove an industrial chemical depot from the northern city, saying a veiled threat by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia to shell the site put as many as a million people in danger.
Israeli worries about the toxic risks posed by the four-storey ammonia vat in Haifa port were stoked by Hezbollah rocket salvoes in the 2006 Lebanon war. In 2013, Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet said the depot would shut down as part of a planned new ammonia storage and production plant in the southern Negev desert.
Lags in the plan’s implementation, and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s description last week of the Haifa depot as a makeshift weapon of mass-destruction should it be attacked, prompted Mayor Yona Yahav’s call on Netanyahu to take action.
“We are alone in this battle,” Yahav told Israel’s Army Radio. “There are a million people around this depot here. It is a gaseous material. It is very, very dangerous material.”
Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond. The Environment Ministry referred Reuters to a statement it put out after Nasrallah’s threat, in which it said that by the end of next month it expected bids for construction of the Negev site.
“Currently, the main issue delaying construction of the plant is the high price of gas, since the plant needs gas to produce ammonia,” said the statement, which also acknowledged the Haifa depot was “an environmental and security risk”.
Yahav argued that it was incumbent on the Netanyahu government “to put up the money and not wait for the business sector. Health and danger are more important, the residents are 100 times more important, than any economic consideration.”
The depot belongs to Haifa Chemicals Ltd., a private company, the Haifa municipality said. The company was unavailable for comment.
A decade ago, Israel relocated a gas depot from Pi Glilot, near Tel Aviv, after a bomb set off by Palestinian militants at the site almost caused a major conflagration.
Yahav said the Pi Glilot move also freed up lucrative real estate — a motive that would not apply for the Haifa depot.
“They (government authorities) don’t really take us into account, because we are talking about a depot that is in a port and to my regret there is no great property value,” he said.
Haifa is home to many other large industrial plants including Oil Refineries, Israel’s biggest refinery.
In his Feb 16 speech, Nasrallah said Hezbollah had spared the Haifa depot in 2006 but might not do so in the future.
“We don’t have a nuclear bomb,” he said. “The intended ‘nuclear bomb’ is the combination of several rockets and the ammonia storage tanks in Haifa, the result of which would be like a nuclear bomb.”
Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Katharine Houreld