Fire Rages at Illegal Waste Dumping Sight in Southern Israel, Boosting Major Pollution Concerns

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Be’er Sheva Stream near the town of Tel Sheva, this week.
Be’er Sheva Stream near the town of Tel Sheva, this week. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Last week a water cannon was used to fight an underground fire that raged at an illegal landfill in southern Israel, after an estimated 200,000 tons of waste were buried there over a period of months.

The event took place in south Rahat, a Bedouin city north of Be’er Sheva. The water cannon was operated by a private company that was hired by the state because the pollution is delaying the start of construction work at the site.

Such fires are common in the Negev, at illegal dumps containing household and construction waste (near Bedouin communities) and agricultural waste (near Jewish farming communities). As a report issued last week by the Environmental Protection Ministry has determined, these fires – some of which are the result of spontaneous combustion – are a major source of pollution that poses a danger to public health.

Rahat, this week. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Two years ago the Israel Nature and Parks Authority set up the fire prevention unit to fight illegal waste dumping and burning. Its inspectors report offenses to the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police. This massive task has been assigned to just nine people, four from the fire prevention unit and five from the Green Police. Baruch Weber, the director of the ministry’s Southern District, says the new unit has reduced the number of fires by 20 percent. According to Guy Nechushtan of the Green Police, in the past two years, 60 bulldozers and other equipment involved in illegal dumping have been seized. Despite these efforts, the enforcement bodies admit that the practice is still widespread.

Illegal dumping is often carried out deliberately by waste collection contractors to save the cost of transportation to a legal site as well as the landfill fees. That is the reason behind the enormous piles of garbage on the banks of the Gerar Stream, which passes near Rahat. An illegal gas station was built on top of the waste. “The contractors throw dirt on the waste to get more area that can be used,” explains Abed Mahamid of the Green Police. This week a bulldozer was brought in to dredge the dry riverbed in order to prevent flooding this winter. Last year a bulldozer was buried under the mountains of garbage and the rainwater, and heavy equipment had to be dispatched to extract it.

More than a kilometer of the northern bank of Be’er Sheva Stream, adjacent to the Bedouin community of Tel Sheva, has become a rampart made of rubbish that stinks of the discarded sheep carcasses that make up part of its volume. Here, too, soil was spread on top to create “new land” for illegal activities. As at other illegal dumps, nearby one can see trucks that contractors use to haul and unload their payloads on the outskirts of communities. “Adding personnel would help, but we can’t stop all the dumping or chase down every resident,” says Nechushtan, adding: “The local authorities must take action.” Mahamid says there are many measures that even disadvantaged local governments, such as the Bedouin communities, can take, like “placing security cameras or a municipal inspector. After all, we know the route the trucks take,” he adds, while casting a glance at Tel Sheva’s garbage mountains.

Be'er Sheva Stream, this week. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Jabbar Alawin, head of sanitation in Tel Sheva, says the town works to clean up the riverbed, in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry and regional agencies. “When we see someone dumping waste, we record the license plate number and file a police complaint, but most [of the dumping] happens at night,” Alawin explains. He says more money and additional inspectors are needed to remove the waste.

The Rahat municipality refused to comment on the issue, but Environmental Protection Ministry officials say the city has begun issuing fines to offenders. Environmental enforcement units have begun operating in a few other Bedouin communities. The most important measure taken in this regard was requiring hauling companies to install their trucks with location tracking devices that can show if they’ve been to illegal dumps.

The head of the fire prevention unit, Oded Nehemia, thinks more money must be spent on enforcement, which is much cheaper than the toll of the damage caused by illegal dumping. But even the current level of enforcement is not guaranteed since the new unit’s funding has not been secured beyond the end of 2021.

Enforcement can also be dangerous: “At Tel Sheva there are shots fired nearly every night and it’s not safe to go in,” says Eden Uliel of the fire prevention unit. The situation is even more dangerous in Abu Queider, a nearby unrecognized Bedouin community. Its residents are scheduled to move to an organized community near Rahat, but for now huge piles of waste are piling up at its edges. The Green Police say some of the perpetrators are contractors who work with government bodies. The illegal dumpers employ lookouts to warn them of approaching officials. “They’re really well organized with their piracy,” says Uliel, whose car was once greeted by a hail of rocks when he entered the community.

This year the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Southern District documented 24 large fires of agricultural waste, which include plastic as well as organic material. “The farmers know that now there’s an agency that learns about the fire and responds immediately, and that’s a deterrent,” Uliel says.

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