Acid Spillage Into Stream Threatens Wildlife at Nature Reserve in Southern Israel

Leakage of acidic affluent from local fertilizer plant affected 20 kilometers of Ashalim stream in Judean Desert

The scene of the acid spillage into Ashilim stream in the southern Judean Desert on June 30, 2017.
Environmental Protection Ministry

Large quantities of acid leaked into the Ashalim stream in southern Israel on Friday after a pool collapsed at a local fertilizer plant. The Environmental Protection Ministry said it would be necessary to gradually pump out the effluent, which may threaten animal and plant life in the area.

Tens of thousands of cubic meters of the effluent leaked from one of the pools maintained by the Rotem Amfert fertilizer plant in the southern Judean Desert. The leak was caused by the collapse of one of the sides of the reservoir, although it is not yet clear what actually caused the collapse.

On Saturday, the ministry said that, in addition to the foul odor caused by the spill, the leak might also affect freshwater reservoirs in the region that wildlife – including ibexes and gazelles – use.

This is the third incident in six years involving the leak of dangerous substances into nature reserves in southern Israel. Previously, large quantities of oil spilled into the Zin stream in June 2011 and at Evrona nature reserve in December 2014.

The staff at the fertilizer plant discovered the problem late Friday morning. The collapse caused large quantities of runoff to begin flowing toward the Ashalim stream nature reserve, situated near the Dead Sea. The staff at the plant shut down the facility generating the effluent and began trying to block its flow, but large quantities had already run into the stream.

Effluent also later flowed onto Route 90, the Jerusalem-Eilat highway that runs near the Dead Sea shore. The road was closed for several hours over concerns that motorists would come into contact with the acid.

Freshwater was pumped into the stream on Friday afternoon to lower acidity levels.

The leak also extended beyond Route 90 to the Ashalim reservoir belonging to the Dead Sea Works (which also owns the Amfert Rotem plant). The environmental police unit of the Environmental Protection Ministry also arrived to investigate.

The Rotem Amfert plant issued a statement saying it was cooperating fully with the authorities. The plant operates 24 hours a day, producing phosphoric, acid-based fertilizers, among other products.

On Saturday, the flow of the effluent was halted along portions of the stream but still continued elsewhere, albeit at a lower intensity. The major focus shifted to assessing the damage and preventing harm to hikers and wildlife in the area.

Inspectors from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority surveyed the length of the stream and said there were still signs of foam. About 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the stream were affected.

“After measuring, we know that the acidity level of the stream is around 2 to 3, whereas a level of 7 signifies neutral effluent,” said Oded Netzer, a southern district ecologist for the ministry.

“It left the reservoir at a level of 1 [meaning it was even more acidic], but it is still considered acidic water. The assessment is that this water did damage to the crust of the earth and to plants and animals there. It’s possible there will be more long-term damage,” Netzer said.

“There’s no doubt that if this incident had happened during the hiking season, the results could have been even more serious – both because it was like a winter flood and also because of the risk of coming into contact with the water,” he added.

Water from another Rotem Amfert effluent reservoir has previously seeped into the ground and from there entered the groundwater, extending as far as the nature reserve at Ein Bokek, on the Dead Sea shore. As a result, the salinity of the water at the nature reserve greatly increased, causing damage.

A rehabilitation plan was supposed to have been carried out in recent years, but has yet to be fully implemented.