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Authorities began removing some 400 cubic meters of petroleum-saturated dirt near Haifa Tuesday afternoon, after a major underground crude oil spill near the southern entrance to the city Monday night.

Between 30 and 40 tons of crude oil spilled onto Route 4 when a 16-inch-diameter pipe carrying crude from the Ashdod port to Haifa Oil Refineries gave way. The malfunction was discovered when employees in the control room of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) noticed a severe drop in flow pressure in the pipeline.

Operation of the pipeline was suspended, and Route 4 between Matam Junction in southern Haifa and the northern entrance to Tirat Carmel was closed for a few hours. No injuries were reported as a result of the spill.

The saturated dirt is being taken to the Nesher Israel Cement Enterprises plant in Ramle, where its potential to power the factory's furnaces will be examined.

Two other alternatives being studied for the safe disposal of the dirt are placement in an appropriate dumping site or biological treatment at EAPC facilities in Ashkelon. The latter involves using bacteria to break down the petroleum into harmless organic material.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, meanwhile ordered EAPC to carry out deep drilling in Tirat Carmel to verify that groundwater supplies were not contaminated by the spill. The drillings might be held up by the presence of the saturated dirt.

Cleanup crews worked for hours Tuesday night to truck out the sand.

While the spill was sealed off before reaching the sea, the head of the Haifa District in the Environmental Protection Ministry, Robert Reuven, said that crude oil did percolate through to below-ground layers and may have reached the groundwater. "We know for certain that the material went into the ground, we still don't know whether it got to the groundwater," Reuven said.