Ein Bokek Nature Reserve - Israel Nature and Parks Authority - 25112011
Ein Bokek Nature Reserve. Several species of flora are endangered by the contamination. Photo by Israel Nature and Parks Authority
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Bureaucratic delays that have dragged on for four years now are preventing the construction of an installation to pump contaminated water from the Rotem Plain area of the Negev. This means that pollution is spreading to groundwater and to Ein Bokek, one of the most important nature reserves in the region. This month the Israel Nature and Parks Authority reported that at the reserve a number of species of rare wild plants are disappearing, apparently because of the continuing pollution.

About 17 years ago industrial waste from factories in the Rotem Plain area leaked and contaminated the groundwater. Gradually the pollution in the subterranean groundwater spread eastward in the direction of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. A few years later the non-profit Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din ) led a legal battle against the Rotem Amfert and Dead Sea Periclase factories located in the Rotem Plain, which it claimed were causing the contamination.

The issue came before the Water Tribunal in Haifa, which approved an agreement between the sides for dealing with the problem. In the agreement, it was determined that the factories had done what was necessary to prevent the continued leakage of industrial wastes. Moreover, the agreement stated that the groundwater reservoir must be treated to prevent the contamination from spreading.

In the context of the agreement, the Israel National Water Company, Mekorot, announced it would act to pump water from the Efa'a drilling station where the pollution was found. Dead Sea Works announced it was prepared to take in the water pumped from the drilling station, thereby enabling the rehabilitation of the groundwater. However, since the agreement was signed the pumping station has not been built and the contamination continues to spread.

The latest issue of the Hebrew journal Ecology and Environment published this week contains a report on the situation of the Ein Bokek Reserve, written by Nature and Parks Authority ecologist Michael Blecher and Orna Blecher of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In 2004 the two documented the plants in the reserve and this year they carried out another documentation project in order to compare the current situation.

According to the findings of the plant census, the number of plant species at Ein Bokek is trending downward. Especially notable is the decline in the growth of the plant doellia bovei, which is in danger of extinction. In the census carried out seven years ago hundreds of individuals of this plant were found in various parts of the reserve. This year it emerged that only isolated specimens of the plant remain. Moreover, tests carried out by the Geological Survey of Israel found that the level of salinity in the area is six times what it was before the contamination.

Rotem Amfert and Dead Sea Periclase responded: "Operation of the pump, drilling and directing the water for use at Dead Sea Works, as stipulated in the compromise agreement, are under the authority and are the responsibility of Mekorot, and the factories have nothing to do with them. For their part, Dead Sea Works have carried out all that is required in order to take in the water. The factories conform to strict environmental standards and in the past three years have invested about NIS 1 billion in preserving the environment."

Mekorot's response: "The company was charged with building an installation for pumping contaminated water at the Efa'a 13 drilling station, and to that end it has to draw up a detailed plan which will enable it to receive a building permit. In a discussion held at the regional [planning and building] committee at the end of last month the obstacles were lifted, and the company hopes the plan will be approved and it will be able to build the installation in 2012."

From the Governmental Authority for Water and Sewage: "The Mekorot company's plan for pumping water has been approved by the authority and is currently in advanced stages of approval with a demand for a number of additional features and coordination steps on the part of the planning and building committee. The authority has instructed all the government ministries and relevant bodies to expedite the procedures."