Israel Environment Bulletin Autumn 1992-5753, Vol. 15, No. 4


Haifa, in the northern part of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, enjoys a spectacular natural setting, but the city’s 250,000 residents have rarely been able to enjoy the view. Plagued by air pollution and frustrated by the lack of progress in alleviating the problem, Haifa’s residents began mobilizing in the mid-1980s to bring about a change in the environmental quality of their city.

Several factors spurred the resolve of Haifa’s citizens to speak outbut high on the list was Haifa’s reputation as the country’s most polluted city. The pollution, contributed by the Israel Oil Refineries, Israel Electric Corporation’s power station, several petrochemical plants and close to 2,000 other polluting industries, is exacerbated by meteorological conditions related to the area’s topographical structure. The publication of a health survey among schoolchildren clearly linking air pollution and health further raised public awareness and public anger. Equally significant were studies published by environmental economists showing that the damage caused by air pollution greatly exceeds the cost of preventing this pollution. Encouraged by the success of similar grassroots organizations abroad and urged by the Haifa branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel to undertake action, Haifa’s citizens finally began organizing in the mid-80s. Their success has provided a model for other grassroots organizations throughout the country.

As early as 1985, a group of citizens known as ENZA (the Hebrew acronym for Citizens Against Air Pollution) was formed to help combat the high levels of air pollution in the city. ENZA’s objectives were to educate the public about the environmental and health hazards of air pollution, to monitor and improve the quality of the air in Israel, and to establish a national coalition of environmental organizations to deal with national environmental issues. ENZA’s efforts were greatly augmented by the Environmental Action Committee (EAC), a committee of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI). Headed by Lynn Golumbic, this small group of Haifa-based American and Anglo-Saxon activists, armed with deep concern for their children’s health, a background in civil rights activism and excellent administrative and marketing skills, collaborated with ENZA and with several other sympathetic public groups in Haifa to bring about environmental changes.

The EAC contacted every voluntary organization in Haifa that had ever expressed concern about the environmentforming alliances with such groups as WIZO, Na’amat, the Council for a Beautiful Israel and involving various student organizations and writers’ groups. The EAC and ENZA, along with the various support groups, conducted a high profile campaign, utilizing petitions and publications, demonstrations and lobbying, to raise awareness and to pressure both polluters and politicians to stem the tide of pollution plaguing the city.

A detailed pamphlet documenting the problem was published, volunteers were actively solicited, parlor meetings were held, demonstrations were organized and the Israel media was bombarded with information and accompanying photographs. Petition-signing stands were placed throughout the city, soliciting 40,000 signatures, and Clean Air bumper sticker and T-shirts were printed to serve as a source of income. Citizens met with relevant politicians, organized demonstrations to coincide with visits of politicians to Haifa, and as the elections neared, organized a two- week vigil outside the home of the Minister of Energy, urging him to approve the air quality standards recommended by the Ministry of the Environment.

As a result of these actions, Haifa’s grassroots organizations achieved not only visibility, but much more. The groups succeeded in helping reverse a proposal to build a second power plant in Haifa, succeeded in electing an environmental candidate to the Haifa City Council, succeeded in convincing both the Electric Corporation and the oil refineries to burn low sulfur fuels. Violations of air pollution standards dropped to two incidents in 1990 as opposed to 12 in 1987, and in 1991, an out of court settlement with the oil refineries resulted in an agreement to burn very low sulfur fuels when warranted by weather conditions. Perhaps most importantly, lobbying by the groups led to a petition to the High Court of Justice, filed by the Union for Environmental Defense, to expedite the implementation of the personal decrees for the prevention of air pollution by the oil refineries and power plant, decrees originally published by the Ministry of the Environment in 1989. As a result, amended personal decrees were indeed published in April 1992 along with the promulgation of improved air quality standards. The amended decrees call for a maximum fuel sulfur content of 2.5%, for use of low-sulfur fuel (1% or lower) when required by the intermittent control system and for continuous use of low sulfur fuel during certain periods of the year when pollution levels are known to rise.

Yet despite these achievements, Haifa’s citizens have shown little inclination to rest on the laurels of their success. Plans abound for future action: a continued watchdog function over Haifa’s major polluters, the establishment of an environmental resource center, an expanded, quarterly newsletter, a series of meetings with trade unions to discuss environmental issues, a letter-writing campaign to similar groups abroad. Both ENZA and the EAC plan to continue lobbying for the enforcement of air quality standards, for the increased use of unleaded fuels and catalytic converters, for citizen education programs to promote recycling, and for efficient and environmentally safe waste management systems.

Lynn Golumbic, chairwoman of ENZA and National Environmental Chairman of the AACI comments on her experience: "Perhaps the ideal model for activism in the environmental field is an active AACI working with an active SPNI. The Anglo-Saxon commitment and ability to organize effectively, when combined with the long-standing record of the SPNI and its participation in major planning committees, allows for an excellent symbiotic relationship."

The 20,000 adult members of the AACI in Israel, representing some 60,000 Americans and Canadians, have been prime movers of environmental activism, interacting and networking with other organizations to raise overall environmental awareness. Throughout the country, AACI groups are organizing to lobby for environmental reforms and to liaison with other groups to raise environmental consciousness. "There is no comparison between environmental awareness a few years ago and today," says Lynn Golumbic. "The establishment of the Ministry of the Environment and the formation of the Union for Environmental Defense have added an essential ingredient to the struggle for environmental qualityenforcement. Grassroots activism and legal action have proved a winning combination in the campaign for a better quality of life and the environment in Israel."