An industrial park pervaded by the rotten-egg stench of chemicals is hardly an ideal place for most people. But for Andrew Seligman, a U.S.-government-sponsored trip to just such a place represented a wish come true.
"From the day I started working for the Environmental Protection Agency, I always thought a dream experience of mine would be to work on a joint U.S.-Israeli environmental project," says Seligman, a 37-year-old Center City resident who spent a week last month advising the Israeli government on pollution problems at the industrial park of Ramat Hovav, 12 kilometers south of Beersheva in the Negev Desert. "This is one of the top three - if not the top - environmental issues I've ever worked on."
The 12-year-veteran of the EPA, who for the past 21?2 years has staffed a desk at the federal agency's Mid-Atlantic Region office in Philadelphia, says the opportunity came about by accident. Three analysts from the EPA's New York City office were all set to depart for Ramat Hovav, a sprawling industrial campus that's home to 18 plants, including that of world medicinal giant Teva Pharmaceuticals, when one of them dropped out.
New York called Philadelphia - and one of Seligman's bosses thought he was perfect for the job.
"The manager knew my wife was Israeli, that I had an affinity for Israel," he explains. "They all thought it would be a good experience. I jumped at the chance."
Cause of Chronic Problems?>
What Seligman, whose current portfolio includes managing pollution-credit programs, jumped into, though, was a hornet's nest of competing interests that for the past couple of years has earned headlines as Israel's biggest environmental problem.
Beersheva's residents and Bedouin tribespeople from the lands next to Ramat Hovav, have for years complained of the odors emanating from the site. They have claimed in several lawsuits - backed by a 2004 epidemiological study by Israel's Health Ministry - that emissions from the wastewater treatment plant and toxic-waste incinerator are to blame for a host of problems, including asthma and cancer.
On the other side of the divide stand Ramat Hovav's regional council, made up of government representatives and industry leaders, and various Israeli authorities. The Defense Ministry wants to build a huge training facility, expected to house 15,000 soldiers, just six kilometers from the complex; the Environment Ministry wants to reduce pollution, but is torn as to how; the Finance Ministry sees Ramat Hovav as an economic engine that churns out a full 7 percent of the nation's gross domestic product; and the Health Ministry wants to put the military project on hold until the area's health problems are studied further.
On Dec. 5, in walked Seligman and his two fellow EPA officials. The trip was requested by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to advise a court-appointed mediator in the dispute as to how the United States would deal with such a contentious issue.
The problem, says Seligman, is that America would not.
"This issue doesn't present itself in the United States," he says. "Almost all production facilities here discharge their waste into a water body. But when you're smack-dab in the middle of the desert, that's not quite an option."
Seligman, who studied physical geography and environmental systems at the State University of New York in Buffalo, says most of Ramat Hovav's problems stem from its unique waste-disposal method: Each of the industrial park's 18 plants pump its by-products into a single treatment plant, which allows the sludge to evaporate in the blazing sun.
The fumes make the area, if not biologically dangerous, aesthetically undesirable.
"Israel would like to develop the northern Negev," says Seligman. "People will not be willing to move there if there's a perceived environmental health risk."
But, as the scientist repeats frequently, "perception and reality can be two different things."
"There are a lot of smells involved with organic chemicals and hydrogen sulfide [two of the discharges from the treatment facility]," he concedes. "But they're not harmful. And Ramat Hovav is the most heavily monitored sight for air emissions in Israel."
Despite the controversy, Seligman says he and his team were given access they could not possibly have back home. He had meetings with top Defense Ministry officials involved in the dispute, and a one-on-one session with the director general of the Environment Ministry.
"Here, I couldn't sit down with the EPA administrator, because the EPA is so big," he relates. Within days of his return, Seligman reports that the stakeholders there have reached a consensus. One, he adds, that's the one he would have chosen.
"They're going to make each plant responsible for its own waste," he says, before emphasizing that his final report and Israel's final decision are still forthcoming. "Everything has to be up and running by 2010, when they anticipate the army bases moving in."