Mayor in standoff with chemical firms in Israel's Haifa

Haifa (Israel) (AFP) - The mayor of Haifa, Israel's third largest city, Monday ordered municipal rubbish trucks to block access to a refinery and four petrochemical plants following a scare over high cancer rates.

The standoff began Sunday when Mayor Yona Yahav ordered the revocation of the five firms' business licences after warnings linking high cancer rates in the area to air pollution.

He then sent in the trucks to block access.

The issue, focusing on a fierce debate over air pollution in the northern port, will come before a Haifa court on Tuesday.

"These trucks were sent once again on Monday morning to block access to four petrochemical plants and a refinery," Tzahi Terrano, a spokesman for Haifa city council, told AFP.

In response, the companies took legal action, with one -- Oil Refineries Limited -- reporting that a court had overturned City Hall's revocation of its licences, subject to a hearing on Tuesday.

"It issued an injunction suspending cancellation of the business licences until it is decided otherwise," the company wrote in a letter to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange seen by AFP.

By late afternoon, the trucks had been removed and it appeared to be business as usual.

At the sprawling industrial complex next to the port, dozens of red-and-white striped chimneys soar above a series of silver-domed plants, a strong smell of petrol in the air.

Outside one entrance at the complex, a green rubbish van had been moved to one side and pushed into a ditch.

- 'I had to act' -

David Castel, president of the Haifa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told AFP that while he supported the mayor's decision, shutting the firms down was impractical.

"I support the dramatic decision taken by the mayor, but the closure of businesses cannot go on more than two or three days or the survival of these companies may be compromised and thousands of jobs put at risk along with the city's economic future," Castel said.

Yahav is demanding that the government make a clear declaration of the risk posed by the plants and explain to what extent the situation is "really catastrophic" for public health.

"Nobody is talking to me at government level which is why I decided to take action," he told public radio.

He said multiple reports had reached his desk, with conflicting conclusions about the state of air pollution in Haifa.

"Faced with pictures of children with cancer, I had no choice, I had to do something," he said.

The standoff began after a senior health ministry official said last week that 16 percent of cancer cases in the Haifa Bay area could be attributed to air pollution.

The observations were laid out in a letter to the interior ministry's planning department relating to a request to expand oil refineries in the area.

"Out of 4,860 cases of cancer, an estimated 780 were cases of excess morbidity in the Haifa region as a result of exposure to air pollution," wrote Itamar Grotto, head of the ministry's public health services, in the letter leaked to media.

- Children exposed -

He also said air pollution was responsible for half the cancer cases in children aged 14 and under in the area.

"For children aged 0–14, out of 60 cases of cancer, it may be estimated that approximately 30 cases were excess morbidity in the Haifa region as a result of air pollution," he wrote.

The letter quoted extensively from a report compiled by Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Oil Refineries, one of Israel's biggest petrochemical conglomerates and one of the five firms in question, released a statement saying it had invested more than $255 million (236 million euros) in "preserving the environment and diminishing pollutant emissions".

Haifa Chemicals, another company, has lodged a legal complaint.

The city, which has a population of 270,000, is home to Israel's largest port and has a number of petrochemical plants.

Environmental groups have previously accused the mayor of having "closed his eyes" to the danger of pollution, despite reports warning of the harm to public health.

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