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Fourteen beaches have been closed to the public since January due to sewage leaks into the sea, two more than last year, according to data released by the health and environmental protection ministries.

In eight of these cases, the party responsible for the leak was a sewage treatment plant jointly run by several different towns. In five other cases, responsibility rested with specific cities, including Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Haifa. In one other case, the Israel Navy was to blame.

Overall, there has been a definite improvement, with the number of beaches closed due to sewage leaking into the sea falling from 64 in 2007 to 12 in 2009. Moreover, the Health Ministry said, it is no longer common for beaches to be closed for long periods due to such leaks.

The best way to prevent such leaks is improved maintenance of the sewage system. But in some cities, like Haifa (where several beaches were closed this year ) and Herzliya, maintenance standards are still too low.

One effective way to persuade cities to improve maintenance is by indicting cities, mayors and/or municipal corporations - something the Environmental Protection Ministry has done at least six times over the last five years. This year, it has yet to file any indictments, but it has sent warning letters and opened one investigation.

Three years ago, the Dan region's sewage corporation was fined NIS 800,000 for a major sewage leak that affected several Tel Aviv beaches in 2003. Last year, the Herzliya municipality was fined NIS 140,000 for sewage leaks. Eilat and Bat Yam have also been fined, to the tune of NIS 250,000 and NIS 80,000, respectively.

The most recent sewage leak occurred in Herzliya, where three beaches have been closed since Tuesday afternoon. The leak was caused by a problem at a pumping station that has since been fixed, but the beaches cannot be reopened until the Health Ministry confirms that the water is no longer contaminated.

As of yesterday, the water had still not reached the necessary level of purity, so further tests will be conducted today.

Enforcement of the ban, however, is a different story. Two of the three beaches - Acadia North and Acadia South - were clearly marked as off-limits by black flags yesterday and were almost empty. But the third, Acadia Central, was full of people, including many children swimming in the water.

There were no black flags, and while municipal officials said there had been a sign, it had apparently fallen down by the time Haaretz visited. The officials later said they had since replaced it.

A municipal spokesman insisted that the city had done everything mandated by the regulations to inform swimmers that the beaches were closed.