Paz Oil Company will pay a precedent-setting fine of NIS 3 million for polluting water sources at five of its gas stations, according to a plea bargain between the company and the Environmental Protection Ministry. The deal was approved yesterday by the Haifa Magistrate's Court.

Paz conceded that between 2001 and 2006, fuel leaked at five of its stations from storage tanks into the groundwater, polluting the soil as well. The stations are on the coastal plain and at Sha'ar Hagai on the highway to Jerusalem.

"The acts to which the accused admitted could have caused irreversible damage to environmental quality," noted Judge Eran Kotton. But he said the steps Paz had taken to limit the damage after the leaks occurred, and the steps it had pledged to take as part of the plea bargain would limit the damage.

Paz said leaks had occurred in underground pipes or tanks at older stations that had been built decades ago, before environmental standards were in place. "So neither Paz nor any of its representatives could have known [about the damage], and certainly did not do it maliciously," it said.

Paz has also committed for the past three years to ground surveys at older Paz stations.

Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said the ruling shows "that today people understand that pollution is a serious infraction, no less than any other criminal act, and is harmful to public health."