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Israel has tall task: transform dump

Published Sep. 26, 2005

Tel Aviv's mountain is not mentioned in guidebooks, although it blooms in the spring and offers great views of the city and the Mediterranean Sea. The mountain is a garbage dump, a half-mile long and 280 feet high.

The mound, called Hiriya, was created over the past five decades through the accumulation of household and industrial waste from the densely populated Tel Aviv area. To the Israelis who drive by the dump, which stands prominently at the junction of two major national highways, Hiriya has become a symbol of the trashing of Israel.

Now, artists and architects have been asked for ideas to turn the site into a public space. It's a tall order.

"Hiriya is a symbol of neglect, a wound full of pus," said Martin Weyl, curator of an exhibit of garbage from the dump at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. "Everybody takes the place for granted. With a little effort we could transform the ugliest site into something beautiful, interesting _ even a landmark."

The story of Hiriya reflects a shift in Israeli priorities, as questions of survival recede and quality-of-life issues become more important. Although Israel's wealth is comparable to that of Western European countries, environmental concerns have been largely ignored.

"As the country becomes more dense and people have more leisure time, Israelis are becoming more aware of the urgency of environmental problems," said Weyl, surveying the urban sprawl of Tel Aviv from the heights of Hiriya recently. Environmental organizations have grown from a handful at the beginning of the 1990s to roughly 100 today.

Opened in 1952 on the ruins of an abandoned Arab village, Hiriya absorbed the growing garbage of the Tel Aviv area without a plan or safeguards. By the time the dump was closed in August 1998, 3,000 tons of garbage were added to the pile daily without environmental restrictions.

With its flat top, the site has been compared to Masada, the mountain where besieged Jews preferred to commit mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman army. The fall of Masada in A.D. 73 "marked the beginning of the Diaspora and the separation of the (Jewish) people from its land," Weyl said.

But "Hiriya is the opposite of heroism. This time, the separation of the people and the land is the result not of expulsion but of neglect." Hiriya embodies the contradiction "between the worship of the land, the Promised Land and the mindless polluting and neglect of this land," he said.

Chunks of Hiriya still collapse occasionally when it rains, black toxic liquid leaches from the dump into nearby streams, polluting water reserves, and explosions of methane gas contained in the mountain's innards threaten to cause fires.

The mound, now used as a transfer station where trash from greater Tel Aviv is temporarily dumped before it is trucked to regulated landfills, attracts a motley crew of maggots, rodents, sea gulls, herons and storks. The migrating birds occasionally interfere with air traffic at nearby Ben Gurion International Airport.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art has invited 20 architects and environmental artists to dream up a green future for Hiriya. Their proposals are on exhibit at the museum through the end of March, while the ministries of Interior and Environment have commissioned architects to transform the dump.

Some of the artists' proposals are utopian and fanciful, but most envision the Hiriya of the future as a giant leafy playground for city dwellers. Under some scenarios, the mound would become part of a safari park, a meeting place for environmentalists, a reserve for storks or a giant nature sculpture.

A Chinese artist proposed "detonating the entire mountain, with an offering ceremony." But the simple removal of Hiriya is not being seriously considered for several reasons.

"First of all, there is no place where we can move it," said David Sternberg, chief engineer in charge of sanitation and garbage disposal for greater Tel Aviv. "Secondly, it would pose a very high risk to open a mountain like this because we don't really know everything that was dumped there over the years. And No. 3, it would be a pity to give it up," he said. "There's a very nice view from up there."

The existing mound already serves some playful functions: People write poetry about the dump, bird-watchers flock there, collectors roam the hill in search of rare finds _ gas masks from the Gulf War and love letters are said to have been found _ and a woman purportedly has her photograph taken on the trash heap every year in the nude.

Sternberg puts the cost of basic rehabilitation at $50-million. Local authorities plan to hire a consultant to come up with an economically and technically feasible makeover plan, not necessarily related to the artists' ideas. Transforming Hiriya from a dangerous dump into a green public space could take another five years, Sternberg said.

More significantly, the conditions which made a trash heap like Hiriya possible in the first place are slowly changing.

"Hiriya is the result of a gross under-pricing of landfill disposal," said Philip Warburg, deputy director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. Until recently, it cost only about $5 to dump a ton of garbage at landfills _ against $35 to $55 in the United States _ making dumping much cheaper than recycling.

Waking up to the danger of untreated garbage using up land and contaminating water resources, the Israeli government decided in 1993 to establish sanitary landfills and close hundreds of illegal dump sites. The move raised the cost of trash disposal to $22 a ton and is starting to make recycling competitive. Israel's first law on recycling was adopted in 1993 but is only now beginning to be implemented.

The change is also a result of a growing public awareness of Israel's limited natural resources. Several events brought the point home in the 1990s. The large wave of Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union put environmental issues high on the agenda, according to Warburg.

The peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors also had an impact.

"The notion that Zionism was boundaryless has vanished," said Warburg. "Now Israelis need to adhere to husbandry rules."

But Israel's trash problems are far from being solved. More than 90 percent of Israel's garbage is transferred, unprocessed, for burial in landfills. Three dangerous dumps of the Hiriya type are still in operation. And the landfills in use today will soon reach saturation point.

All this, while Israel's population continues to grow at a rate of 2.4 percent a year, demanding that ever more land be devoted to housing and garbage.