Analysis: What the U.S. chemical industry can learn from its Israeli counterpart

Published 17 July 2006

One of the key issues in the debate over the impending chemical plant safety legislation is the issue of IST, or inherent safer technology: Security experts argue that the 300 or so U.S. chemical plants operating near population centers should be required to replace the most toxic and volatile chemicals they use and store with safer chemicals; the industry and its friends in Congress dismiss the call for IST conversion as being motivated by environmental concerns, not national security; what is the position of the Israeli chemical industry on the issue of IST and terrorism?

One aspect of the war Israel has been conducting since last Wednesday against the Iranian-supported terrorist organization Hezbollah is directly relevant to the debate in the U.S. Congress over how best to impose meaningful safety measures on the more than 15,000 U.S. facilities which produce, process, store, and use toxic chemicals. The core of Israel’s petrochemical industry is located along the southern part of Haifa Bay, immediately to the east and north of the port city of Haifa (see map). Among the facilities in this industrial strip are oil refineries, chemical fertilizer production facilities, tank farms for oil storage, and more. More than 500,000 people live in neighborhoods and subdivisions in the vicinity of the petrochemical industrial zone, a fact which for years has caused much concern among Israeli security experts.

Since Friday, Hezbollah, with the help of more than 200 Iranian engineers and rocketry officers who man the organization’s long-range rocket force, has been firing salvos of Iranian-produced Fajr missiles and Syrian-produced Grad rockets in the direction of the petrochemical industrial zones in the hope of inflicting a mass-casualty catastrophe on Israel. The missiles are inaccurate, and so far have fallen on residential neighborhoods in Haifa and neighboring towns, killing about a dozen people and injuring more than 100.

The Israeli authorities are less sanguine about chemical plant safety than their American counterparts. Since the beginning of the latest crisis, a large volume of the more toxic and dangerous chemicals have been removed from the area to safer storage facilities in central Israel. If a Hezbollah rocket were to hit the industrial zone today, the volume and toxicity of the chemicals released would be far less dangerous than would have been the case a week ago. We note that this is the second time in as many months that the Israeli chemical industry has taken safety measures in the face of terrorist attacks