After meeting over the weekend with Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay (Kulanu) decided on Sunday to launch a special task force focused on mitigating Haifa Bay’s air pollution.

Gabbay instructed Environmental Protection Ministry director-general David Lefler to form the task force, which is to include representatives from the ministry, the Haifa Municipality, and the Health Ministry.

The group is tasked with formulating a long-term action plan to submit to the minister within two weeks and then for cabinet approval.

“We must take immediate, actual steps in both the legal sphere and in the areas of enforcement and supervision, in order to strengthen the Haifa metropolitan area,” Gabbay said, emphasizing the government’s commitment to improving the city.

In response to Gabbay’s decision, Yahav thanked the minister for agreeing to meet with him so quickly, and praised the ministry’s dedication to the city’s development.

Gabbay’s initiative follows media reports linking cancer incidence to air pollution in Haifa Bay. The reports also indicated a heightened presence of childhood cancer in comparison to the rest of the country and prompted drastic moves, such as Lahav’s decision to temporarily blockade the city’s biggest factories.

The data in question resurfaced after Prof. Itamar Grotto, director of the Health Ministry’s Public Health Services, sent a letter several months ago to the Interior Ministry’s National Planning Administration, in response to objections regarding the expansion of oil refineries in the area. Grotto primarily based his letter on a 2013 article published in The American Journal of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention, which examined cancer prevalence around Haifa from 1998-2007.

Citing the article, he explained that over that 10-year period, about 780 of the 4,860 cancer cases found in the region likely resulted from air pollution. Of the 60 cancer cases that occurred in children under age 14, about 30 were probably linked to air pollution, he wrote.

Although acknowledging the gravity of air pollution problems in the region, the Environmental Protection Ministry at the time said monitoring efforts and regulatory steps taken in recent years have significantly improved air quality, with contaminant concentrations decreasing by 70 percent in the past six years alone.

The Health Ministry eventually retracted its statements linking Haifa air pollution levels with cancer incidence, stressing that its officials would continue to review the data and consult with experts.