On Tuesday afternoon, a ship owned by Petroleum and Energy Infrastructures Ltd. (PEI) was working to dismantle underwater oil pipes. The pipes, located opposite Haifa's Kiryat Haim neighborhood, had been there since the 1930s. Some leakage was reported back in 2014, and the company had been contracted to remove the now hazardous pipes.
In a slip of fate, the ship collided with one of the pipes, bursting it. Oil flooded into Haifa Bay. Thanks to the quick action of the company, the pipes were immediately sealed. The Environmental Protection MInistry reports that only 5-10 cubic meters of oil were actually released into the bay.
Although a crisis was averted, the reactions surrounding the incident are out of proportion. MK Yael Cohen-Paran insists: "Israel is not prepared to deal with ocean pollution." Similarly, the NGO Tzlul used this leak as a doomsday sample: "An oil spill in the ocean is a situation that has terrible potential for damage, and it needs to be taken care of quickly. Israel stands ready to renew the permits for gas and oil drilling, but isn't prepared to deal with oil spils."
While the political grand-standing is entertaining, it simply isn't true. Within minutes, the Environmental Protection Ministry had issued a warning against swimming in the bay – even though the oil leak was a full 12,000 meters away from shore. PEI had immediate control of the situation, and has already cleaned up the oil spilled. It seems that Israel can and does handle problems in the water.
Environmental problems on land, though, continue to be passed over. A study produced by Haifa University warns that the high levels of pollution in the Haifa area are correlating with significant birth defects. Babies in Haifa are born with heads 20-30% smaller than the national average. The study identifies Kiryat Haim, Kiryat Bialik and south east Kiryat Tivon as the epicenters of pollution-related disorders. Residents there are 5 times more likely to develop lung cancer and lymphoma than those living elsewhere in Israel.
In April, 2015 Haifa residents took to the streets after the Health Ministry's chief of public health services, Professor Itamar Grotto, announced that half of the cases of cancer in Haifa's children could be attributed to air pollution in the area.
However, even as these startling results have come to light, the force of progress continues to grind forward. Mayor Yona Yahav was shocked when courts ordered the reopening of Haifa's oil refineries back in February. "We are fighting 24 hours a day," he reassured the public. As big business interests continue to push for more licenses, however, the fight doesn't look like it will ever end.