Safe management of hazardous substances is one of Israel’s most pressing environmental concerns. Appropriate safety and control procedures for the import, manufacture, storage, use and transport of hazardous substances and their wastes must be viewed as an integral element in the day-to-day management of the country.

Management of Hazardous Substances

It is widely acknowledged today, in Israel and worldwide, that the management of hazardous substances is one of the most difficult and complex of environmental problems. Hazardous substances, which encompass thousands of materials, pose a grave risk to human health and the environmentbut they are to be found in almost every field of activityindustry, agriculture, commerce, hospitals, research facilities and the home itself. The substances cover a broad range- -toxic, explosive, flammable, corrosive, radioactive, chemical- reactive, pathogenic, carcinogenic, and other materials which endanger the environment.

Provisions for the handling of hazardous substances are under the authority of ten government ministries with responsibility for the implementation of over 100 laws and regulations. While the Ministry of the Environment is the main body responsible for the management of hazardous substances, it coordinates its activities with a myriad of other bodies. Following is a short survey of the division of ministerial responsibilities in the area of hazardous substances:

* Ministry of Health: Extensive authority through the Licensing of Businesses Law, the Pharmacists Ordinance and the Public Health Ordinance to regulate hazardous substances (especially pesticide residues) in food products, as well as in medical and pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. The ministry operates a medical information center on poisons.

* Ministry of Agriculture: Complete jurisdiction over the registration and application of pesticides.

* Ministry of the Interior: Direct responsibility for firefighting and rescue services during accidents involving hazardous substances and responsibility for the evacuation of the population during such events.

* Ministry of Labor and Welfare: Overall responsibility for regulating occupational exposure to hazardous substances through the Safety at Work Ordinance and additional labor laws.

* Ministry of Transport: Regulation of the transport of hazardous substances and wastes in air, sea and land according to the relevant legislation, including responsibility for ports and trains.

* Ministry of Defense: Control of hazardous substances in military installations and industries and overall responsibility for emergency disaster response through the Civil Defense Law. The Home Front Command (Civil Defense Corp) operates an information center on hazardous substances in conjunction with the Ministry of the Environment.

* Ministry of Industry and Commerce: Indirect involvement through the regulation of industry and direct responsibility through the regulation of import and export and as administrator of the Israel Standards Institute.

* Prime Minister’s Office: Responsibility for regulation of radioactive facilities and wastes.

* Ministry of Energy: Responsibility for Israel’s petrochemical industry, for electric and fuel utilities and for the supply of fuel and Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG).

* Ministry of the Police: Direct responsibility and command during accidents involving hazardous substances.

* Ministry of the Environment: Responsibility for overall management of hazardous substances, including the handling and treatment of hazardous wastes.

Contingency Plans and Emergency Procedures

Israel has thousands of plants which produce, use, store and transport millions of tons of hazardous and toxic materials, including fuels. An accident or mishap can bring catastrophic results, both in terms of human life and environmental damage. Improper treatment and disposal have already been responsible for the closing of some water wells in the coastal aquifer.

Although studies on safeguarding environmental quality and public welfare during accidents in industrial plants date back to 1980, the Bhopal catastrophe of 1984, in which thousands were killed by a leakage of poison gas from a pesticide plant, precipitated preparations for a system to deal with hazardous substances incidents. Preparations were further expedited by various mishaps in Israelaccidents during the transport of bromine in the Aravah region and fires in pesticide storehouses in Herzliya and in liquid petroleum gas (LPG) installations in Kiryat Ata.

In 1987, the ministerial committee on hazardous substances and natural disasters set up an interministerial steering committee to study the handling of hazardous substances in Israel, especially during emergencies and natural disasters. The committee’s recommendations related to a wide variety of issues: the prevention of accidents in potentially dangerous plants; the supervision and follow-up of safety procedures; guidelines for action in emergencies; the allocation of responsibility among government ministries, local authorities, industry, army and police; plans for dealing with major accidents; and data collection and scientific research. As a first step in the implementation of the recommendations, an information center for hazardous substances was established. The center, which provides information on all matters relating to hazardous materials, operates within the framework of the Ministry of the Environment and the Home Front Command (see below).

Today, the committee continues to coordinate between ministries dealing with hazardous substances, reviews the activities of the information center, follows up on government preparedness for treatment of hazardous substances and natural disasters, and recommends solutions to various problems in the realms of legislation, inspection and treatment of accidents.

Treatment and Disposal of Hazardous Waste

Until the mid-1970s, Israeli industries improvised their own methods of hazardous waste disposal from storage on their own grounds to discharge into municipal waste sites, sewage systems, watercourses, the sea, vacant lots and abandoned quarries. The cumulative quantity of hazardous waste discharged into the environment without supervision or control since the creation of the State is estimated at tens of thousands of tons.

In 1977, Ramat Hovav, located about 12 kilometer south of Beersheba was chosen as a national disposal site for hazardous waste. Geological, hydrological and demographic factors led to the selection of this location. The original plan for Ramat Hovav envisaged its operation as a treatment plant and not merely a dumping ground. However, from the time of its opening in 1979 until 1987, wastes that arrived at the site were haphazardly received, stored and treated. Facilities for the neutralization of heavy metals, cyanides, acids and inorganic material began operating in 1988, but no satisfactory solution was ever found to the fuel industry’s sludge nor to the ever-increasing quantities of organic substances.

The quantities of hazardous wastes which reached the site increased from 7,000 tons in 1985 to 25,000 in 1988 to 48,500 in 1993. The 48,500 figure is really much higher since in-house recycling was undertaken in recent years by a large manufacturer of pesticides, fungicides and agrochemicals in the area. The company, which previously disposed some 20,000 tons of hazardous waste annually at the Ramat Hovav site, now sells its purified acids to a major fertilizer plant for use as raw materials in the production of phosphate fertilizers.

Israel’s hazardous waste regulations require that all hazardous waste be properly treated, recycled or deposited in Ramat Hovav. While these regulations are now implemented by the majority of Israel’s large-scale industries, solutions have not yet been found to the problems encountered by hundreds of small-scale industries, some producing only a few tons of hazardous substances a year. Efforts are currently being invested in finding economically- feasible methods of transporting the hazardous wastes produced by these plants to the Ramat Hovav site.

The waste which arrives at Ramat Hovav is classified into several major groups, each destined for a specific kind of treatment:

* Acid and alkaline solutions neutralization. * Toxic chemicals and metals detoxification. * Sludges storage in sealed collection pools until solidification and incineration. * Organic substances and outdated and used cytotoxic drugs storage in a temporary landfill site until incineration. * Insoluble materials and precipitates landfilling.

In recent years, serious problems, related both to siting and operation of Ramat Hovav, have resurfaced. An expert committee, appointed to study the problems in 1990, pinpointed several deviations from accepted procedures. To help remedy the problem, the Ministry of the Environment issued special conditions, within the framework of the Licensing of Businesses Law, calling for measures to ensure environmentally safe-operation of the site. However, studies continued to reveal that hazardous leachates from the Ramat Hovav area, including both the hazardous waste site and the industrial area, percolate through the cracked rock above which the site is situated and are slowly transported westward in the direction of the southern part of the coastal aquifer. A recent research study has confirmed the contamination of both groundwater and the Besor River, the largest of the Negev’s rivers. In light of the findings, the Minister of the Environment allocated a special budget earmarked for the implementation of a comprehensive survey on water and soil pollution in the area. Furthermore, the minister took a landmark decision: to close Ramat Hovav and to open a new site to serve as Israel’s central site for the disposal and treatment of hazardous waste.

Currently, five alternative sites in the south of the country are being examined. The final decision on siting will be taken after careful consideration and review by a hydrogeologic committee of the Ministry of the Environment. An international tender will then be published to select the company which will establish and operate the new site.

Establishment of the new site is envisioned as a three-year process. The project, itself, will be accompanied by a special steering committee to ensure that the site is planned and operated in accordance with the strictest international environmental standards. Current plans call for the purchase of an incinerator for the present site, operated by the Environmental Services Company. The incinerator, which will be capable of burning about 15,000 tons of organic materials per year, will gradually rid the area of the large amount of organic material which accumulated at the site over the years, estimated at 40,000 tons. These organic wastes have been stored for years in barrels, "ecological time bombs," which threaten the Besor River and groundwater and are a potential fire risk, which could necessitate the evacuation of Beersheba and nearby settlements. After the opening of the new site, an incinerator will be purchased to serve its needs, and activities will be undertaken to clean, neutralize and cover the existing Ramat Hovav site.

Operational Plan for Hazardous Substances Accidents

While supervision has been enhanced in recent years, accidents along the production-transport route have continued to occur although fortunately none have developed into major disasters. In recognition of the gravity of the issue, the Minister of the Environment commissioned a study, in January 1993, on the functioning and preparedness of the ministry in this area. It soon became apparent that in order to properly deal with the subject, a national system was neededa comprehensive operational plan for dealing with hazardous substances accidents whereby each body in the system would have clearcut tasks and responsibilities, both individually and collectively, under the directing arm of a single headquarters.

An interministerial expert team was set up to consolidate the principles of organization and operation which would guide the bodies taking part in a hazardous substances incident. The team, comprised of representatives of the police, Home Front Command, fire and rescue services, Magen David Adom

(Israel Red Cross), Ministry of the Environment and several other government ministries, drew up a preliminary model for presentation to the government. In response, the government, in a September 1993 decision, called for the establishment of a national system for handling incidents involving hazardous substances. The government called upon the team to determine realms of responsibility and action for each body during an accident, to decide on the necessary means to be allocated to each body to enable it to accomplish its task, to consider legislative changes to facilitate the work of the various organizations, and to ascertain the required budgetary framework for operation of the entire system.

On the basis of the government decision, a two-volume contingency plan was prepared, consisting of an integrated action plan specifying the tasks of each body within the framework of the entire system and a specific action plan for the Ministry of the Environment. The plan relates to the structure, organization and activation procedure of each organization and specifies the responsibilities of all bodies within the integrated system. Its underlying principle is to facilitate optimal response to a hazardous substances incident in order to attain the central aim: rescue of human life and reduction of property and environmental damage.

Broadly speaking, the Home Front Command is responsible for the treatment of incidents involving hazardous materials during emergency or wartime periods; the Israel Police is responsible for commanding and coordinating treatment during normal, non-emergency periods; the fire and emergency services are responsible for dealing with the initial activities at the site of an accident until the arrival of Ministry of the Environment emergency response teams, and these teams are then responsible for detection, monitoring, risk assessment and transfer of the hazardous waste to the Ramat Hovav hazardous waste site.

The system is based on the division of the country into ten central risk areas; immediate response teams are activated in each area in case of a hazardous substance incident. The country’s emergency bodies (police, fire-fighting services and Magen David Adom) are required to arrive at the scene within ten minutes of notification; professional response teams of the Ministry of the Environment are obliged to arrive within 30 minutes of notification.

The report specifies the roles of each of the bodies within each of the risk areas. In the case of the Ministry of the Environment, the six district offices of the ministry are responsible for the ten risk areas as well as for accidents in plants, sites, and on roads within the jurisdiction of each district. Each district will have a response team and an environmental patrol and will be aided by local environmental units, all under the professional guidance of the Hazardous Substances Division of the Ministry of the Environment. The response team will include two branches: one responsible for detection and identification; the other for risk assessment. The national hazardous substances patrol will fulfill the functions of response, calibration, supply of equipment, maintenance, guidance and field advice to the response teams while the ministry’s information center on hazardous substances will provide ongoing data, help with risk assessment and coordination among the various forces.

The plan outlines five stages of activity for each of the bodies preparation (including preventive action such as enforcement and training), three levels of response (immediate, primary and complementary) and rehabilitation. In the case of the Ministry of the Environment, the preparatory stage includes inspection, supervision, law enforcement and training. Immediate response includes arrival of the response teams, initial assessment, and provision of advice to the police headquarters. Primary response includes initial detection, identification and risk assessment, advice to the police command, recommendations on the treatment of the hazardous substances, advice on guidelines to the population and risk assessment. In the next stage, complementary response, monitoring in the affected area is undertaken along with dynamic risk assessment and continued advice to the command headquarters on treatment and neutralization. In the final stage, rehabilitation, the nuisance is removed, damage control is completed, investigations ensue and lessons are learned.

The Hazardous Substances Division of the Ministry of the Environment is responsible for implementing these decisions and is currently completing the purchase of hazardous substances patrols, protective gear and sophisticated detection and identification instruments. Training courses for the emergency response teams, both theoretical and practical, are already being carried out.

Information Center for Hazardous Substances

In order to implement the wide range of tasks required during emergencies involving hazardous substances and to facilitate enforcement of laws and regulations, up-to-date information must be available on hazardous materials which are used, produced, imported, exported, transported and disposed of in Israel. Such data must relate to quantities, types, characteristics and concentrations of materials found at all levelsindustry and institutions on the local, regional and national levels.

For this purpose, an information center on hazardous substances was set up within the Ministry of the Environment’s Hazardous Substances Division, in coordination with the existing information center of the Home Front Command. Plans are currently being completed for the unification of these information centers into one centralized Information and Response Center for Hazardous Substances which will supply data on a 24-hour-a-day basis. The unified center will consist of two extensions, civilian and military, with the latter operating during emergency and wartime periods.

The center, which serves the multitude of bodies now dealing with hazardous substances as well as the general public, is first and foremost designed to support the activities of the ministry.

The center collects both quantitative and qualitative (e.g., toxicity, explosiveness, risk levels) data on hazardous materials in every sector, as well as data on safety, detection, identification, alert, treatment and neutralization procedures. Information is received from importers, suppliers, users, producers and transporters of hazardous substances as well as from the agricultural sectors, government ministries, customs officials, local authorities and licensing authorities.

In addition, the center follows up on all new developments in the area of legislation, regulation and restrictions, both worldwide and in Israel. Such information is vital to support decision making and to improve supervision of the use, transport and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes in Israel.

In order to facilitate efficient enforcement of both the Hazardous Substances Law and of hazardous waste regulations, information is currently being collected on every facility which uses, produces or stores hazardous substances; all relevant data, including information on key persons and facility layout, are being collected to facilitate response capability. Computerized industrial plant files are being prepared, in cooperation with industry, with data on types and quantities of substances in each plant, environmental impacts, and treatment in case of accidents.

Currently, the center uses information sheets in Hebrew on 2,000 substances, an English language data and response system with 4,300 substances and a data file on pesticides including 700 substances. It is connected to international databases and to the computer of the Customs Bureau. Since the center will serve as the focal point of response during hazardous substances incidentsproviding essential information, support and coordination servicesefforts are currently being invested in setting up databases on hazardous substance accidents in Israel and elsewhere, on risk assessment and on potential scenarios. Future plans call for computerizing the poison permit system (required by the Hazardous Substances Law) and for computerizing and mapping hazardous substances and hazardous waste locations in Israel.