Blowing in the wind

Despite its reputation as “the most monitored area in the world” and a much-vaunted network of measuring stations, residents and experts claim that little is known about the concentration of air pollutants – including dangerous carcinogens like benzene – in the Haifa Bay area. Meanwhile, huge sums of money are spent monitoring pollutants that no longer pose a major threat. An investigative report into mismanagement and under-monitoring in Israel's national air-quality network

Photos: Orit Siman Tov

Ze’ela Kotler Hadari

July 14, 2020



hen one of the long-disused twin cooling towers of an oil refinery in northern Israel collapsed last month, local residents saw, among the rubble and the dust, a painful reminder of their struggle – not only for cleaner air, but for basic information about what harmful substances they are breathing in.

Haifa Bay is the very heart of Israel's petrochemical industry and has been since before the establishment of the state in 1948. The oil refinery has been in operation since the late 1930s. Unsurprisingly, operating emissions-heavy factories in the heart of a densely populated area has led to severe problems with air pollution in the surrounding towns and cities.

What is surprising, given the countless articles and a government watchdog report about the problem, is that official figures tracking harmful emissions in the region are infuriatingly hard to collate and shockingly incomplete. Little wonder, then, that locals have little faith in the country's environmental and public health authorities – and in the frequent claim that "Haifa's air is the most monitored in the world."

While the problem should be abundantly clear to all, the gravity of the situation appears – absurdly – to be open to debate. For the past 20 years, locals have been told that their air "is as clean Switzerland's,” while, at the very same time, their local council has badgered the state to find an immediate solution.

Anyone who wants detailed air-quality information in the Haifa Bay area – one of the city's nine boroughs – can visit the website of the National Monitoring Network, which provides raw data for others to utilize in user-friendly and colorful interfaces. The same website also provides data for each pollution monitoring station. Theoretically, all the real-time information can be found on the site. A closer examination of this data, however, raises serious questions about its credibility. The deeper one digs into the workings of the monitoring network, the more holes one discovers. More like Swiss cheese than the famously pristine Alpine air.

Haifa Bay prides itself on being the "most monitored area in the world." If the sole criterion is the number of monitoring stations per kilometer, or per capita, this boast could be justified. The Haifa Region Association of Towns for Environmental Protection proudly points out that there is one monitoring station for every 40,000 residents, whereas the European standard calls for one station per 100,000.

Notwithstanding this apparently impressive statistic, there are two highly disturbing blind spots in the map of monitoring stations: What substances these stations are not monitoring and which areas are under-monitored.

One substance which is not always monitored is benzene, a known carcinogen linked to childhood leukemia – even at relatively low exposures levels over a long period of time. According the Ministry of Environmental Protection, 26 of the country's 140 air-quality monitoring stations are located in the Haifa Bay area and surrounding region. However, only nine of the stations located in the Bay itself measure benzene levels – and one of them is not even active. This makes it impossible to get a complete picture of benzene concentrations in the area, especially in populated areas.

Sarit Golan, an activist/attorney who took over as head of the regional environmental protection agency earlier this year, has vowed to clean up the Haifa Bay. Even she, however, was unaware that the monitoring station in Nesher, one of Haifa's boroughs, does not monitor benzene, She promised to look into the matter.

The same is true in Tivon, which sits downwind of the concentration of factories in the Bay; Neve Sha’anan, a neighborhood of Haifa that overlooks the bay and is at high risk because of its topography; and on Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, which has a history of pollution. And what about the Krayot, the cluster of small towns with a traditionally disadvantaged population? As one would expect, residents simply have no idea how much benzene they are inhaling every day.

Watchdog slams missing data

One important environmental story that was buried by the global coronavirus crisis, highlights just how worried the authorities and residents are about benzene concentrations – and with good reason.

Haifa is not Israel's only port. Ashdod, tucked between Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip, is also home to petrochemical refineries. In 2018 and 2019, unusually high levels of benzene concentrations were measured in the monitoring station at the city's northern industrial area, located adjacent to a residential neighborhood. Despite increased enforcement, benzene levels continued to rise, spiking in February. Moreover, the pandemic forced the closure of the monitoring station. Residents successfully petitioned the government, which agreed to set up two additional benzene monitoring stations near residential areas.

In Haifa, the picture is different. Locals believe that they are, indeed, living in the “most monitored area in the world.” But if the head of the regional environmental protection agency wasn't aware that Nesher's monitoring station doesn't measure benzene levels, it's a safe bet that concerned citizens were also in the dark.

What's even more alarming is that those stations which do measure benzene levels are located nearer to the refineries and not the residential areas. According to the Environment Ministry, this is because benzene concentrations should be measured as close to the source as possible. In this case, that means the Bay's southern industrial area, where there are three major petrochemical factories are located: BAZAN Oil Refineries, Gadiv Petrochemicals and Carmel Olefins, all of which are subsidiaries of the Israel Corporation, Israel's largest holding company.

This arguably acceptable answer, however, does not explain why the stations which do measure benzene concentrations do not do so continuously. An inspection of the data from several stations uncovered gaps in data, some lasting up to two weeks.

The Haifa Bay Industrial Area

According to the ministry, the target is for continuous data transmission from monitoring stations during 75 percent of any given year. Figures provided by the ministry, however, show that two of monitoring stations in Haifa did not meet that target and that the best-performing station only transmitted data 94 percent of the time.

In 2019, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira addressed this very issue in a scathing, 540-page report. He concluded that the Environment Ministry's map, ostensibly showing the location of stations for monitoring all pollutants, was misleading and failed to provide an accurate picture of air pollution.

The report also urged more openness from those responsible for monitoring air pollution. He called on them to admit that the existing methods are flawed and that information they issue should carry a caveat. They must assume, he wrote, "that a full and accurate picture about most of the air pollutants [in the Haifa Bay area] is not available" denying authorities of the data they need to make "optimal, rational decisions.”

Shapira also notes that for four months in 2018, the ministry failed to publish benzene concentration levels at some of the Haifa Bay-area monitoring stations "since, during those months, the information from those stations was available for less than 75 percent of the time.”

In 2019, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira addressed this very issue in a scathing, 540-page report. He concluded that the Environment Ministry's map, ostensibly showing the location of stations for monitoring all pollutants, was misleading and failed to provide an accurate picture of air pollution.

Without the monitoring system, locals would have no way of assessing the quality of the air that they and their children breathe. And without reliable and accurate data, regulatory authorities cannot issue fines when the permitted levels are exceeded. All this raises questions about the state's ability to make decisions that will have a long-term impact not only on the factories operating in the area, but – most importantly – on how public health is to be safeguarded.

The ministry's boilerplate response was predictably dismissive. “The Haifa Bay area has the most extensive measurements for benzene concentrations," a spokesperson said, "with 10 monitoring stations continuously measuring, and an additional eight sampling spots that measure benzene concentrations once every two weeks. Your query, therefore, is unclear." So, we do not understand the claim. It should be noted, of course, that those 10 stations include two which are not even in the Haifa Bar area.

Cheap and easy testing

The chief source of industrial benzene emissions is petroleum refinery. The petrochemical industry uses benzene as a main raw material for a wide variety of different products, including plastics, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. As far back as 1948, the American Petroleum Institute stated that "it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero."

Israel has determined a strict standard of 3.9 micrograms per day, which is equivalent to 1.2 parts per billion. This means that excess emissions are only measured on a daily basis; any spike in emissions during the day is not taken into account. These spikes certainly occur, and even occurred during the corona lockdown when, at certain times of the day, benzene concentrations at some stations reached 8 micrograms. Transportation is an additional source of benzene and opinions are divided on the question of what contributes more to pollution - industry or transportation.

Haifa Bay’s monitoring system is managed by the Haifa Region Association of Towns for Environmental Protection, which has an annual budget is $3 million and reports to the Environment Ministry. Following the principle that those responsible for pollution should foot the bill, local factories provide 70 percent the budget; the rest is made up by local authorities. The money pays for the monitoring stations, new measuring devices, salaries, and for an on-call duty officer in the control room, ready to act if excess levels are recorded.

Monitoring stations don’t look particularly impressive. More like a shipping container than a state-of-the-art facility. The tiny room, measuring no more than 9 square meters, is crammed with boxes that vaguely resemble computer equipment from a bygone age. In reality, these boxes measures levels of respirable particulates, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

A mushroom-shaped vent on roof absorbs the particles in the air and pumps them through narrow glass tubes to the various devices. A glass jar on the roof absorbs gasses in the air, which also pass through narrow, coiled pipes into the monitoring station.

Monitoring station

The starting price of a new monitoring station is around $200,000. Adding a device for measuring benzene concentrations adds $35,000 to the ticket. While it could be argued that, in absolute terms, this is a small price to pay for public health, the cost is cited as the main reason why benzene monitoring has not been expanded in the Haifa Bay area. In the words of the Haifa Association, it's cost versus benefit.

One of the officials most closely involved in the Haifa Bay monitoring system insists that no benefit will be gained by expanding benzene measurements to cities near the Haifa Bay area. Dr. Ofer Dressler, director of the Haifa Association, says this would be tantamount to “over-measuring” and that, while "benzene is a malicious carcinogen … it is not the only one that worries us; there are other gasses that I would not want to see here.”

According to experts, Israel's monitoring stations are currently measuring exactly those pollutants that don't need to be measured. For years, huge sums have been spent merely to create the semblance of monitoring, they argue. For example, these stations still measure sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, even though it is a far less prevalent pollutant today. Meanwhile, there's not enough money for comprehensive benzene monitoring.

Dr. David Broday, an expert in air pollution, has been at Haifa's prestigious Technion research university since 2001. He says that, until some 20 years ago, the emphasis was on sulfur dioxide, after severe concentrations of the gas were found throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Sarit Golan, an activist/attorney who took over as head of the regional environmental protection agency earlier this year, has vowed to clean up the Haifa Bay. Even she, however, was unaware that the monitoring station in Nesher, one of Haifa's boroughs, does not monitor benzene, She promised to look into the matter.

"When I joined the Technion," he says, "I began researching the volatile organic compounds. I contacted the Haifa Association and recommended that they start measuring organic compounds. But because the issue was not so prevalent in public discussions as it is today, they just told me would study it.”

After sulfur dioxide, the focus of attention switched to various nitrogen oxide gases, according to Broday, and then the focus moved to respirable particulates. "These are still considered an important component in measuring air quality," he explains, "since the small particles can penetrate the respiratory system and then move into the vascular system and the brain. In recent years, the emphasis has been more on benzene and its derivatives."

Dressler does not contradict Broday's claim that, "the move over to natural gas has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions significantly and that “everyone knows there's no need to monitor for sulfur dioxide in the Haifa Bay area." He argues, however, that removing these devices would lead to a public outcry.

Who cares what the public wants?

The access road to the wastewater treatment plant in the Haifa Bay passes close to the oil refineries, providing an excellent vantage point to survey this huge complex: almost 6 square miles of refineries, excluding the adjacent factories. Until very recently, there were two cooling towers. Now, there's one and a half.

Between the refineries and Route 4, farmers grow their crops on verdant fields. Beyond them, on the hillside, is a crowded residential neighborhood on the western edge of the city of Nesher. The Haifa neighborhoods adjacent to the university sit above Nesher and the cluster of cities that make up the Krayot are located on the other side of the complex.

Dr. Levana Cordova-Bijoner, director of the National Air Monitoring Network, which oversees all of Israel's monitoring stations for the Environment Ministry, isn't won over by the argument that residents of the Haifa Bay area have the right to know how much benzene they are inhaling – even if the values are low.

Not only does the lack of benzene monitoring make life easier for local industries, since they don't have to rectify a problem that isn’t being measured, it also suppresses public anger. After all, if the public were to be given a full picture of this pollutant's prevalence, people would be up in arms.

PM David Ben Gurion, 1962, Haifa Bay. Photo: COHEN FRITZ, GPO

"It's all well and good that residents want to monitor benzene concentrations," Cordova-Bijoner says, "but I have no professional indication for doing so. The monitoring stations located near the refinery show a sharp decrease in concentrations and far fewer incidents of excessive levels. We also have three mobile stations situated right next to the complex. I really don't think that the people of Nesher should worry. If we had detected high concentrations in our samplings, we would have demanded that the Nesher station also monitor for benzene.”

Cordova-Bijoner also rejects the argument that the Haifa Bay monitoring system is failing to provide greater transparency in the fight against air pollution. “Every two weeks we do environmental samplings in Nesher and we do not see significant or excess concentrations," she says. "If we considered it necessary, we would have placed a measuring device there. There is no justification for placing such a device on every street corner. We are talking about using public funds.”

When reminded that 70 percent of the funding for the system comes from industry, she insists that, "these devices are very complex, and we sometimes have problems with them, or they are faulty. There is no justification for placing benzene measuring devices in every location."

A cursory examination of the ministry's fortnightly sampling reports, however, quickly shows that on several occasions in the past year, excessive levels of benzene were found in at least three sampling locations – some of them more than once. If, as the ministry claims, indication is benzene measurements at stations nearest the factories, then it has every justification to insist on similar measurement being taken in nearby cities.

Ravit Shtussel: “We spend our free time studying the monitor readings and analyzing the data. This is a Sisyphean task, a never ending battle, but we are now at the most optimistic we have ever been. We've change the nature of the discourse, we've brought many different parties together and we've prevent the expansion of the refinery”.

Data posted on the website of the National Monitoring Network, known by its Hebrew acronym, MANA, revealed a worrying pattern of incompleteness. In the Neve Sha’anan neighborhood, for example, there was fortnightly monitoring, but not continual monitoring of benzene levels. In any case, reports abruptly ceased at the beginning of April. In Nesher and elsewhere, data is only given for one of the two sampling points, and the findings also dried up in April.

Kiryat Tivon, some 15 kilometers southeast of Haifa, on the main road to Nazareth Tivon, provides an even starker example. Since February, the station there, which does not conduct continual benzene monitoring, has not provided any data at all – raising suspicions that it has simply stopped monitoring.

Ludicrous sanctions, fundamental problems

Monitoring stations are not the only means by which pollution in the Haifa Bay is measured. The Haifa Association and the Environment Ministry have installed a network of sensors in the factories, continuously monitoring emissions from their cooling towers and chimneys.

Dressler says that data collected directly from the factories helps environmental protection enforcement, since the guilty party can be identified immediately. While accepting that this is not the case with data from monitoring stations, where the source of the pollution is arguable, Cordova-Bijoner counters that the stations are still an important regulatory tool; emissions from factories do not reflect the air quality that the people eventually breathe in.

When it comes to benzene, however, the argument is moot, since neither the stations nor the sensors specifically monitor benzene. Dressler explains that the sensors monitor the volatile organic compounds, which include benzene, but we were unable to find the volatile organic compounds monitor in the factory network. Some did have a total organic compound monitoring device, which monitors emissions from a larger group of carbons.

The ministry also takes samples from the factories' cooling towers and chimneys – both on a regular basis and spot checks. These reports show what we already know: benzene levels are not measured, total organic compound levels are – as are sulfur dioxide levels, despite their waning relevance.

None of these readings, however, are able to provide an answer to the fundamental question of how much benzene is emitted into the air in the Haifa Bay area. This is especially true for the average Israeli, who just wants to find out the pollution level near his home.

Even the spot checks that the ministry boasts about conducting are woefully incomplete, a point that did not escape the notice of the state comptroller. In his report, the national watchdog slammed all those concerned with monitoring emissions and, in effect, of failing to ensure that the public receives "a reliable and exact picture of the concentration and quantity of pollutants that are emitted from the factories."

Such is the sensitivity of the subject that one expert – who has been involved with the Haifa Bay monitoring for more than two decades – asked to remain anonymous.

“Today, we know that 90 percent of the pollution from the petrochemical industry is not even emitted from the chimneys," he says. "In addition to benzene, almost 30 other pollutants are diffuse emissions from the chimneys, some of which are more dangerous than benzene. Are they continuously monitored? No! Would this increase the monitoring expenses? No! Does it appear in the emission permit? Yes. Why do they not do it? I don’t know.”

This expert agrees that the fundamental problem is a lack of public transparency. There is, he says, "a crisis of trust," which, couple with the topography and geography of the region, means that, "there is not a continuous circle of monitoring of a large number of pollutants along the factories’ perimeter, as is the case in the United States. In many cases, the cat is guarding the cream. More often than not, the authorities rely on the factories to report on themselves."

A "Clean the Haifa Bay" demonstration

In December 2016, a fire broke out at the BAZAN plant. Large quantities of pollutant were emitted, yet it took three months for the ministry to file charges against the oil refinery. Three and a half years later, in June this year, this giant conglomerate, which earns billions of dollars, was fined the paltry sum of $350,000.

According to a source with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the company, BAZAN has "a reactive policy. When the company is told off, it does the necessary repairs. They are concerned about pollution, but they do not try to take any active measures to prevent it. They do repairs when they are ordered to, but they don't do everything in their power to reduce pollution. Everything depends on regulation."

What's in a name?

The ancient port of Acre sits at the northern end of the Haifa Bay. Those responsible for the National Monitoring Network thought it unnecessary to deploy an air-quality station in the city, or any of the adjacent towns. Indeed, the closest monitoring station to Acre is located in Kiryat Motzkin, some 10 kilometers to the south. Despite its relative distance from the city, the station carries the name "Acre Road/Motzkin."

Even that distant station, however, has lain dormant for the past 18 months – and the story behind the closure is as absurd as it is depressing. After publication last year of the damning watchdog report into air quality in the Haifa Bay area, representatives of the various bodies involved in running the monitoring network held a meeting. According to leaked minutes of this meeting, the Kiryat Motzkin station had ceased operation because the local council was concerned that negative figures were harming the city's reputation. Their proposed solution was to change the word "Motzkin" in the name of the station to "Haifa."

The council representative argued that calling the station "Acre Road/Motzkin" creates the false impression that much of the pollution in the area originates from Kiryat Motzkin. The monitoring station remains dormant and a ministry spokesperson's reassurance that "the matter is being dealt with" ring hollow.

The Acre Road station story may be absurd, but it is far from unique. When plans were made to set up a monitoring station in Karmiel, following reports of high ozone concentrations, the council only acquiesced when it was agreed that the station would not carry this city's name. Even in supposedly progressive Tel Aviv, there is opposition to the establishment of a downtown monitoring station, according to Cordova-Bijoner. "Very often," she explains, "local authorities do not allocate land for a monitoring station because they are not always interested in knowing and seeing the pollution levels in their midst.”

According to our anonymous insider, “this is the paradox of monitoring. If you know that the air in your area is polluted, then you have to take steps to reduce it. If you do not know, then everything's just fine. No mayor or council head wants to be told that their city is polluted. The ministry does not always want to know; otherwise, how can you explain why they are not utilizing the state-of-the-art technology that's available?”

This "monitoring paradox" was also evident when we tried to contact Roey Levy, the mayor of Nesher, for his view on the fact that benzene levels are not being monitored in his city. Levy declined to speak to us directly, but submitted a written response: “The city of Nesher is in favor of and is working toward expanding the monitoring network in the Haifa Bay area. Mayor Levy has repeatedly spoken out about the polluting factories that harm the air quality of residents of the region. Similarly, he is very active in the Haifa Region Association of Towns for Environmental Protection and attends all the meetings to ensure that the interests of Nesher’s residents are properly represented.”

Dr. Ofer Dressler, director of the Haifa Association

This kind of generic response, however, will do little to placate locals who are working tirelessly for cleaner air. Ravit Shtussel, originally from Kiryat Bialik and currently living in Haifa, is a leading environmental activist in the city. She began campaigning against pollution in the Haifa Bay eight years ago and since then she has been active in the “Clean up the Haifa Bay” initiative.

Campaigning is a time-consuming business. “It is like having three full-time jobs," Shtussel says. "We are a group of concerned members of the public. We spend our free time studying the monitor readings and analyzing the data. This is a Sisyphean task, a never ending battle, but we are now at the most optimistic we have ever been. We've change the nature of the discourse, we've brought many different parties together and we've prevent the expansion of the refinery. We demonstrated for two weeks outside the home of [former Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon, and now everybody's talking about revitalizing the Haifa Bay and evacuating the petrochemical industry."

Of course, words and plans alone will not cause Shtussel and other activists to ease up their pressure. When she sees an excessively high level of a pollutant on air quality app, she immediately posts the information on her Facebook page. On more than one occasion, she says, the ministry has accused her of posting misleading information and sowing panic.

“In order to know the true state of air quality, we need to have as much information as possible," Shtussel insists. "At the moment, we don't have this information – and Haifa Bay is not really the most monitored area in the world. Parts of it are not monitored at all. When we do get see a report showing benzene pollution, it's only an indication. The technology is not being updated. This is 2020 and we still do not have a full picture of air monitoring. No one knows the true state of air pollution in the Haifa Bay.”