Court Partially Lifts Gag Order on Probe Into Worst Oil Spill in Israel's History

Minerva Helen, a Greek tanker, was mentioned by several Israeli media outlets as responsible for the leak ■ Company denies all allegations

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Tar on a beach in Israel, yesterday.
Tar on a beach in Israel, yesterday.Credit: Rami Shllush

An Israeli court partially lifted on Tuesday the gag order placed on the details pertaining to an oil spill off the country's coast that led to one of the worst cases of maritime pollution in decades.

The Haifa Magistrate’s allowed the publication of some details of the investigation, but continued to bar the publication of the names of the ships suspected of involvement in the pollution – except for those that have already been reported – until Wednesday at 4 P.M.

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The name of one ship – Minerva Helen, a Greek tanker – was mentioned by several Israeli media outlets as responsible for the massive leak. 

Minerva Marine Company told Haaretz that it rejects all allegations that the vessel may be responsible for pollution decimating Israel's beaches.

A volunteer cleans tar on an Israeli beach, yesterday.Credit: Moti Milrod

The company added that from February 4 through February 11, the ship was drifting offshore Port Said, Egypt, awaiting voyage orders without any cargo on board, and that the ship was not involved in any activity that could have been linked to offshore oil spill.

According to the Marine Tracker ship tracking site, the tanker did enter the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal on February 4, continuing a few days later to Spain.

The court also banned reporting any details about the methods of investigation, the authorities involved in the investigation and any other information that comes from an investigative body.

A dead whale washed up on a shore in Israel, last week. Credit: Ilan Assayag

On Monday afternoon, Haaretz, together with other media outlets, submitted a request to the Haifa Magistrate's Court for the gag order to be canceled or for its scope to be reduced. 

On Tuesday, the government approved allocating 45 million shekels ($13.8 million) for the cleanup. In 30 days, Environmental Minister Gila Gamliel will present a legal memorandum on the country's preparedness for and response to oil spills. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged fast action before the oil seeps into the ground.

The pollution was first noticed Wednesday, with the Environmental Protection Ministry saying the most likely scenario is an unreported spill of perhaps dozens of tons of oil from a tanker. The ministry said Saturday it had been told by the European Maritime Safety Agency that an oil slick located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Israel's coast was the source of the pollution. 

On Sunday, the Israeli government called on the public to refrain from visiting beaches in a wide swath of the country.

Authorities said beaches between Rosh Hanikra in the north and the kibbutz of Zikim in the south, near the Gaza Strip, were closed to the public until further notice.

Tar from the accident has marred beaches over 170 kilometers (106 miles), 40 percent of Israel’s coast. 

Thousands of volunteers joined major cleaning efforts organized by NGOs and local authorities on Saturday. Officials say much work remains to remove all the tar, and most of it will have to be done by hand. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority believes the cleanup will take years. 

Since Wednesday, animals have been found covered with tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles. Four of the turtles died, while the others were taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Mikhmoret between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

The Nature and Parks Authority meanwhile announced initial findings from the autopsy of a whale that washed ashore on Thursday. According to Roni King, a veterinarian who works for the authority, a black liquid was found in the whale's lungs, but that it was not yet known whether the liquid was linked to the whale's death or if was related to the spill.

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