Contaminating Israel's soil – then and now
Early in the state’s history, munitions and other factories irrevocably damaged the soil. So why are we making similar mistakes decades later?
A few years after I began working as an environmental affairs correspondent, I received a phone call from a water expert. He told me what only a handful of scientists knew then: Contamination at an Israel Military Industries plant was spreading through the soil and groundwater in the greater Tel Aviv area. Dangerous gases were forming that could seep into underground parking garages and basements, so drilling for drinking water had to be stopped.
Israel’s soil is scarred, loaded with contaminants like those from the IMI plant. On the shores of the Dead Sea, sinkholes open up without warning, and cliffs along the Mediterranean are collapsing − all due to human activity. The cost of cleanup and rehabilitation at industrial sites alone is estimated at above NIS 9 billion. At the Dead Sea coast and in the Arava sand dunes that have been mined for construction materials, the damage is irreversible.
What we’ve done to the soil isn’t the result of just greed or shortsightedness. In its early days, the state often overlooked the environmental consequences. It was state institutions, not the Ofer brothers or other tycoons, that began digging up the Negev craters to mine phosphates. This was a vital source of income.
It was defense contractors operating for the state that polluted the soil in Gush Dan − the greater Tel Aviv area. Of course, the weapons were badly needed, but there are still cases in which economic interests and a lack of awareness are adding to the damage.
The result? The soil has been blighted from Nahariya in the Galilee to Samar in the southern Arava. For example, in Nahariya, where the Eitanit plant was once located; one of its products was asbestos. It sold leftover materials, some of which were used to build roads.
When I toured the city a few years ago, environmental activist Orit Reich spotted chunks of crumbling asbestos in nearly every street or courtyard in certain Nahariya neighborhoods. Exposure to asbestos causes fatal diseases, and there are concerns that widespread exposure across the western Galilee has increased the frequency of mesothelioma, a rare incurable cancer.
Only after years of campaigning, spearheaded by people like Reich, did the state launch a broad cleanup about a year ago. The owners of the Nahariya factory, which had since closed, were ordered to finance part of that effort.
Toxicity and heavy metals
IMI, and Electrochemical Industries in Acre where PVC was once manufactured, both left behind huge splotches of contaminated soil. When you visit the site of the IMI plant in Gush Dan, where one of the largest of these black spots is located, there are no bad smells or piles of refuse today. But underground there are toxic solvents and heavy metals that were once used in manufacturing arms. These were poured into the ground without proper treatment, in an era when factories weren’t forced to adhere to environmental standards.
These substances continue to seep through the soil into the groundwater − and we’re talking about an area of dozens of square kilometers in Gush Dan. The Israel Water Authority has done surveys in the area for more than a decade, but an overall solution to pump out or treat the contaminated water has yet to be implemented.
Not far from Gush Dan, on the beaches of Netanya, Herzliya and Ashkelon, vacationers risk their lives every summer − as they pass beneath the cliff along the shoreline, which is in danger of collapsing in these cities. There has already been a fatality, three years ago.
Cliffs on the shore erode naturally because of waves, wind and rainwater. But in recent years construction of structures such as marinas has blocked the natural flow of sand from sea to shore. As a result, there’s less sand along the shore and the cliff has lost a layer of protection from the waves. New breakwaters and protective walls reduce the damage, but in many places the cliff continues to collapse.
The damage done to the soil at dumping sites is still apparent at one of the country’s worst environmental eyesores − the Hiriya landfill outside Tel Aviv, which has been inactive for 14 years.
A year before it closed, I climbed the mountain of garbage there after a strong rain; the slope was about to collapse after the downpour destabilized it. The rain also accelerated the pollution in the depths of the soil. Today efforts are under way to rehabilitate the mountain by stabilizing its slopes, collecting the liquids and siphoning off the flammable gas that forms as the garbage breaks down . There are dozens of smaller sites like this, where the contamination will continue seeping into the ground for years.
In the Negev, experts have been toiling for more than a decade to reconstruct the landscapes destroyed where mines once produced phosphates and stones. The state, which systematically destroyed the area, eventually set up a fund to rehabilitate quarries. But often the best landscape architects can’t turn things around − for example, once a deep layer of soil has been removed.
Meanwhile, experts working on behalf of the Environmental Protection Ministry describe the sinkhole problem in the Dead Sea area as “a disaster that is not defined in any law and is not included in any safety framework.” These pits, which gape open without warning, stem from the Dead Sea’s lower water level.
The decline in the level has resulted from using the water that reached the Dead Sea from the Jordan River for drinking and irrigation, as well as by pumping seawater for industry. The drop in sea level then exposed soil and chunks of salt. Fresher groundwater seeped into the ground after the sea level dropped, dissolved the salt and collapsed the surface. Thus we have sinkholes.
Today there are nearly 2,000 sinkholes near the shrinking Dead Sea, and their number will only grow. As long as the sea level is dropping, there is no way to halt the phenomenon. All we can do is put up signs and declare large areas inaccessible and hazardous to visitors.
The ground hasn’t been left alone even in the most far-flung corners of the country − even in the Arava’s sand dunes that abut Jordan. At first the sands were mined to open up areas for agriculture, and in recent years to expand construction in Eilat. In the past two months, sand has been mined in the southern Arava in a section of the Samar dune rich in rare natural resources. The sand has been turned into a raw material for the construction industry in Eilat. This site teaches us a lesson about the tremendous damage we’ve done in general to the ground beneath our feet and to this country’s ecosystems. This lesson hasn’t been fully learned.
At Samar, the crude and visionless economic logic triumphs. The authorities opted to ignore the rare ecological asset they were about to destroy; they preferred to save the money they would have to pay to transport sand from more distant places.
“The animals here can’t rent a new apartment and move into it after their home is destroyed,” said the University of Haifa’s Yael Olek, who was speaking during a tour of the place. “They will disappear.”
Another scholar said no rehabilitation work will be of use after the removal of the soil layer containing the vegetation that sustains the animals: The Samar dune will simply be left naked and barren.