Volunteers arriving at Nitzanim Beach, just south of the port city of Ashdod on Saturday were greeted by the pungent smell of tar. They could smell it all the way from the parking lot, the first sign of the disaster that had compelled them to show up on a Saturday morning.
All those present had signed up, signed in and were given instructions and equipment. “About 200 people came today. There are children, families, all ages,” said Shani Tubul, coordinator for the southern district of a coalition of environmental groups, which organized the cleanup together with the Hof Ashkelon local council. “They’re from all over the country, from Tel Aviv and even from Jerusalem,” she added.
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In the last few days, photos of the contaminated beaches and the injured animals were shared widely on social media, encouraging volunteers to come out. They include twelfth-graders Omer, Tamar, Sol and Tair. Tair saw the pictures on Instagram and her friend Omer said her mother got a message on her local community WhatsApp group about the cleanup. “So I sent it to my friends, we got organized and came,” Tair said.
For the next few hours, they filled sacks with tar, sometimes in large clumps, often in tiny crumbs. Side by side with other volunteers, they combed the sand, attempting to revive the beach.
Not enough hands
It has now been four days since the sticky black substance began collecting on Israel’s beaches. It is now referred to as the most serious marine pollution event in decades; every day that goes by, another beach is added to the list of damaged sites. According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, over the past two days alone, tar has reached the beaches in 16 places, including Akko, Haifa and Hof Hacarmel in the Galilee, Herzliya in the center, and Ashdod and Zikkim in the south.
According to the ministry, the source of the pollution is a vessel that released tons of oil into the water while sailing outside of Israel’s territorial waters. The oil floats to the surface, turns into tar, and is brought to shore with the current.
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The cleanup began soon after the tar appeared, but it was only on Saturday, after the storm and the weather cleared that thousands of volunteers began to show up. Local authorities are largely dependent on concerned volunteers, because the state does not have the human resources needed to deal with a pollution event this extensive.
On Herzliya beach, which turned out to be one of the sites with the most tar, volunteers were stretched thin using bags and gloves provided by the municipality. Some found themselves working almost alone. “I knew nobody would deal with this so I decided to come,” Roi Lezinger, 18, of Herzliya, said. “I don’t have a bag, so I’m collecting all the tar I found and I’ll take it to a pickup point.”
Unprepared and powerless
The state is almost powerless to prevent an event like this one, which began outside territorial waters. The Environmental Protection Ministry is equipped mainly to contain local events – but activists contend that the ministry would have been better prepared if it had implemented regulations put in place in a decade-old pollution masterplan.
“The national plan for preparedness and response to pollution was approved by the government 13 years ago,” said the Society for the Protection of Nature. “According to that decision, in three to five years, 15 million shekels [$4.6 million] should have been invested in implementing the program, and 10 positions created within the Environmental Protection Ministry.” But according to the organization, the decision was never implemented because there was opposition from the Finance Ministry.
The director of the beaches department in the NGO EcoOcean, Michal Wimmer-Luria, said the ministry needed help from “volunteers working under the local authorities” in order to deal with an event of this extent. “Some are trained, but others need to be better prepared.”
The sea will continue to spit out tar for the coming days, Wimmer-Luria said. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said it was mapping the damaged areas and expressly asked people not to come and clean on their own. Cleanup requires special protective equipment, the agency said, the tar must be disposed of appropriately. It also said it would be putting out an invitation to the public to help in the coming week via social media.
Some don’t want to wait. On Saturday morning, at least 150 people showed up on Aliyah Beach in Tel Aviv. They were the only organized group in the city, brought together by Tel Aviv resident Inbar Margulis and the NGO Plastic Free Israel. “I don’t understand how this isn’t at the top of the news broadcasts,” Margulis said angrily.
Every volunteer received instructions on how to protect themselves and the animals they came across. To ensure that no animals were injured, the volunteers went through the sand with their hand, cleaning the tar off the wildlife, one mollusk at a time.