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The Kishon River. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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Doron Golan / Jini
Raw sewage flowing into the Kishon River in 2007. Photo by Doron Golan / Jini

Twelve years after a group of navy divers were found to have developed cancer after training in the Kishon River, an effort to clean up the polluted riverbed has finally begun.

The work is expected to take three years and cost some NIS 220 million, of which NIS 120 million will be contributed by the industries that polluted the river. The government will chip in NIS 60 million, the relevant local authorities NIS 20 million, and the remainder will come from a government fund for environmental projects, Hakeren L'shmirat Hanikayon.

The lion's share of the industrial contribution, NIS 90 million, will come from Oil Refineries. Haifa Chemicals will kick in NIS 28 million, having finally signed an agreement to do so after refusing for over a year. The cabinet approved the government's share of the money in July 2011.

At yesterday's ceremony inaugurating the clean-up, one of the guests was Yuval Tamir, a former officer in the naval commandos who now heads an association for victims of the pollution.

"This is a moving day: After 12 years, they're starting to clean up the river," he said. "I was here 12 years ago with the Shamgar Commission [which investigated the connection between the pollution and the divers' health problems] in an effort to map the enormous pollution that occurred here."

The commission recommended cleaning up the river, he noted, "but for years, no one wanted to take up the challenge. For years, this was a double battle - against the cancer, and in order to ensure that this pollution would end for the generations to come. All those years we believed it wasn't necessary to hunt scalps, but that our activity couldn't end with halting diving in the river. I hope children and scouts will resume sailing here."

The first stage of the clean-up will involve diverting the riverbed, with the goal of eventually enabling a park to be created on both sides of it. Today, that isn't possible because Oil Refineries occupies the northern bank. An Israeli contractor has already been chosen for this job.

The next stage will involve digging up a seven-kilometer stretch of the riverbed and putting the soil through a biological process to clean it. The soil has been contaminated to a depth of 2.5 meters with pollutants such as heavy metals and various petroleum compounds. An international tender has been issued for this job.

Both the navy divers and fishermen who worked in the Kishon estuary filed civil suits over the pollution, and those suits, too, are finally nearing a conclusion. About two years ago, the plaintiffs rejected the Haifa District Court's proposal for a NIS 14 million settlement, opting instead to insist on a ruling. Now, the parties are submitting their summations, after which the court will rule.

Some 50 fishermen who developed various illnesses filed suit, but about 10 of them later withdrew their suits after being cross-examined. Suits were also filed by relatives of some fishermen who died of cancer.

For years, the Kishon was considered Israel's most polluted river. But after a massive effort over the last decade to reduce the amount of pollution flowing into it, the river is now ranked only the 11th most polluted, and some 50 species of birds have returned to it.

Nevertheless, the pollution flow still needs to be reduced further, warned Sharon Nissim, the director of the Kishon River Authority.