Environment Ministry files criminal charges against Bazan Group for air pollution

The Environmental Protection Ministry on Sunday filed a criminal indictment against Carmel Olefins, a subsidiary of Israel’s Bazan oil conglomerate, for emitting nearly 100 tons of potentially harmful gases into the air and violating the terms of its business license and emissions permit.

Carmel Olefins, headquartered in Haifa in northern Israel, manufactures polypropylene and polyethylene for the plastics industry.

The indictment comes just nine months after the ministry slapped a NIS 895,000 ($275,000) fine on Bazan, charging that Carmel Olefins had failed to obey the rules on dealing with a highly toxic naphtha leak that caused a fire.

In November 2017, Bazan was fined NIS 2,174,604 (then around $604,000) for the same violations, within the framework of an administrative enforcement action.

The charge sheet, filed at Haifa Magistrate’s Court, names three people who held senior positions at the facility at the time of the alleged pollution events — Asaf Almagor, Eyal Pinto and Orit Barkhorder.

The charges relate to nine occasions between 2016 and 2018 during which the rules on operating the factory’s flare were allegedly not properly heeded.

View of the oil refineries in Haifa Bay, May 5, 2017. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90/File)

Flares are used to burn off excess gases that cannot be removed in any other way.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the flare in the factory’s ethylene unit was not operated according to the manufacturer’s instructions on those nine occasions, with the result that air and hydrocarbons failed to properly mix.

The flare did not always ignite, sometimes smoke was produced, and gases harmful to the environment and public health were emitted, among them carbon monoxide, ethane, methane, ethylene and propane.

These emissions totaled 61.12 tons in 2016; 25 tons in 2017; and 6.89 tons in 2018, according to the indictment.

On five of the occasions, there was also no clear record of what had taken place because of faulty video recordings, the charge sheet says. Such recordings are important tools for enforcing the rules and their operation is mandatory.

A map of the Haifa Bay and nearby residential areas. (Google Earth)

Both Bazan and its Carmel Olefins subsidiary are part of the Israel Corporation conglomerate, the biggest holding company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. A majority shareholder of the company is Idan Ofer, one of the two sons of the late Israeli shipping magnate and philanthropist Sammy Ofer. Idan specializes in the oil, mineral and chemical side of the family business. He helms both Bazan and  ICL (formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd), which extracts minerals from the Negev Desert in southern Israel and from the Dead Sea.

Several studies have indicated that Haifa residents suffer from a slew of health-related problems, including higher rates of cancer and pollution-related disorders such as smaller-than-average heads and relatively low weight in newborns.

In March, the cabinet unanimously voted to shut down the Bazan Group complex in Haifa Bay and its oil storage complex in nearby Kiryat Haim, following years of campaigning by area residents, backed by environmental activists.

In October, the Bazan Group’s oil refineries came top position in the ministry’s annual list of companies with the worst environmental impact on their surroundings or those that fail to comply with regulations. Carmel Olefins came fifth.