The state has asked that hearings on a motion to recognize a class action against the government-owned company that was responsible for a massive oil spill in a nature reserve in southern Israel in December be held in closed court. The state has also applied to ban publication of the protocols and decisions from the hearings, citing the confidentiality order governing the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company.
On December 4 of last year, an estimated 5 million liters of crude oil leaked into the Evrona Nature Reserve from a rupture in a pipeline operated by EAPC, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in Israeli history. The spill occurred near the community of Be’er Ora, some 20 kilometers north of Eilat, during maintenance work ahead of the construction of a new airport in Timna.
The EAPC initially under-reported, by about half, the quantity of oil involved in the spill, admitting only a few days later the actual amount of the spill. A criminal investigation was launched into the incident, which led to a massive clean-up operation in the reserve. After the spill, a group of local residents and environmental activists filed a motion in Be’er Sheva District Court requesting recognition of a class action against EAPC. The motion, which also named the prime minister, the Finance Ministry and its accountant general as respondents, demanded that the EAPC pay the plaintiffs 246 million shekels ($62.8 million) for the damage caused by the spill and associated costs, including actions to prevent future oil spills.
In its response to the court, the state asked for the prime minister, the treasury and the accountant general to be removed from the class action, on the grounds that the motion did not cite their involvement in the oil spill.
Regarding the state’s request for secrecy, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that it was not justified because the hearings were about environmental damage, a matter of clear public interest. They added that if there were specific issues that were suitable to be discussed behind closed doors, this could be done. The lawyers quoted Efrat Kahlon, a Finance Ministry legal adviser, who at Knesset Finance Committee hearing on oil spill three months ago said: “As far as we know, an order of confidentiality has never been applied in an environmental matter.”
EAPC was established in 1968 as a partnership between Israel and the National Iranian Oil Company to build and operate an oil pipeline from Eilat to Ashkelon, plus ports for tankers and storage facilities. It was nationalized at some point after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but still operates under a confidentiality order that originated in the Shah’s desire to keep the arrangement a secret.A few weeks ago, the state submitted another response on the matter, in which it repeated its request for full confidentiality. The state maintained that although the class action purports to deal solely with environmental issues, in fact it also involves other matters, including the state’s relationship with EAPC and company revenue. In all its filings on the class action, the state has never fully disclosed its relationship with EAPC.
“We repeat that the state is aware of the public interest in the subject of the suit,” the state wrote in its response. “Certainly there is no disputing the importance of making the deliberations public. But it also seems there is no disputing that there are situations that, despite this important principle, call for an in camera hearing.”
As to its reasons, the state wrote: “We wish to emphasize again, as was explained in the motion for a closed-door hearing, that we cannot here expand on why this hearing should be held behind closed doors.”
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