Israel Failed to Protect Its Coast. The Next Environmental Disaster Is Just a Matter of Time

As long as oil continues to be used as fuel, the risk of oil spills, like last week’s leak along the Mediterranean shoreline, still persists

Zafrir Rinat
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Volunteers remove tar from rocks at a northern Israeli beach, on Monday.
Volunteers remove tar from rocks at a northern Israeli beach, on Monday.Credit: Rami Shllush
Zafrir Rinat

Five days after tar began washing onto Israel’s beaches, it’s become apparent that only an emergency situation that dramatically affects public awareness can coax the government into understand the importance of protecting the country’s natural resources.

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For more than a decade, environmental groups have been trying – without success – to convince the government to approve the necessary funding and personnel to handle pollution incidents. Now, just days after the extent of the damage to Israel’s Mediterranean coastline has become clear, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel has announced that she is submitting a proposal for the cabinet’s approval to strengthen Israel’s preparedness to deal with various kinds of fuel pollution in the sea. Based on the government’s approach to the environmental issues until now, the public should be closely following how the decision will be implemented.

The severe damage to the coast demonstrates the danger posed by hazardous leaks and spills and also shows that such incidents will persist so long as countries around the world continue to use polluting fuels. It’s been 31 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker leaked almost 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska. The spill caused major and ongoing damage to the area’s ecology, and its effects are still felt. It’s considered a landmark when it comes to the risks involved in transporting oil.

The spill on Israel’s coast is clearly not of the same magnitude as what happened in 1989 in Alaska, but it’s serious enough to do severe damage to stretches of the coastline and has affected over 170 kilometers of coastline. On Sunday, environmental groups expressed furious criticism over Israel’s lack of preparedness to deal with a large-scale oil spill and called on the government to act as quickly as possible to fund a national pollution-prevention plan and have it enshrined into law. The organizations also noted a national plan that the cabinet approved in 2008 that has not been implemented.

A sea turtle covered in tar on a beach in Israel, earlier todayCredit: The Sharon Municipality Association

The groups were also critical of a gag order issued Monday on the details of the investigation into the source of the spill, an order imposed at the request of the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Maya Jacobs, CEO of the environmental organization Zalul, said the ministry was too slow to understand the seriousness of the situation and noted that it’s aware of its lack of necessary authority and funding to deal with major pollution incidents. The ministry has also not spoken out about plans by the Europe-Asia Pipeline Co. to expand its oil transportation activity in the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Eilat.

“If there is pollution of such a magnitude in the Gulf of Eilat, you can say goodbye to the coral,” she said, referring to last week’s incident.

Environmental attorney Tamar Gannot from the Adam, Teva V’Din nonprofit organization said that local authorities were required to bear responsibility for their beaches without the budgets to back this up and no guarantees that they will be compensated when necessary. Moreover, she says, there is no mechanism for coordinating the operations of different local authorities.

Tar on the beach at Rosh Hanikra in the north, on Saturday.Credit: Yigael Ben Ari/Israel Parks and Nature Authority

She noted that Israel is deepening its utilization of polluting fuels instead of moving toward a carbon-free economy. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Egypt’s Energy Minister Tarek el-Molla to discuss cooperation on energy issues, including the use of natural gas resources, the production of which also produces large amounts of oil.

A decade ago, the Environmental Protection Ministry completed a national plan for preparing and responding to oil-based pollution of the country’s beaches. The plan calls for a sliding scale of responses based on the severity of the pollution. In cases where the pollution is not severe or widespread, the ministry will assist other agencies, including the use of contractors and naval vessels for containing the pollution. In cases of severe pollution, the assistance of other countries will be required. In order to ensure implementation, the plan needs to be anchored in law.

Gannot said that legislation will not be sufficient, and that a law regulating maritime zoning needs to be passed. This will regulate operations in Israel’s exclusive economic zone, areas that are outside its territorial waters but in which operations such as oil and gas drilling are permitted by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the framework of such a law, said Gannot, there will be a need to determine what authority and enforcement capabilities will be given to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

According to Gamliel, the proposal to be presented to the cabinet for approval will include an immediate budget for rehabilitation as well as a request for additional positions at the ministry and a request to advance a law that would regulate the national plan for dealing with maritime pollution. Furthermore, more budgets for local authorities will be requested.

Advance preparation

So far, the source of last week’s spill is unknown, but the Environmental Protection Ministry believes it came from a vessel which passed outside of Israel’s territorial waters a week ago and released oil into the water. The state cannot prevent a repetition of such an occurrence when the vessel travels outside its territorial waters, but it can prepare to better address the problem when it does occur.

There are several experts in Israel who are looking into operating a network of radars that can track waves and sea currents. The data they collect allows for tracking the progress of an oil slick and also assists in tracing its source. Even though the technology is in place, no plan has yet been approved for establishing such a network.

Volunteers cleaning up tar from a beach in Jaffa, on Saturday.Credit: Moti Milrod

“We’ve proposed to government departments that we set up a network of radars that can track up to 100 kilometers [60 miles] out,” said Prof. Hezi Gildor from the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University. “All we asked for was that they cover maintenance costs, since we’re operating several of these systems in academic settings, but we didn’t get the funding. Such a system could have helped in this situation. We also suggested using buoys that could be placed inside an oil slick, with satellite monitoring of its progress. In this case, too, our request for funding the operation was turned down.”

Gildor also mentioned the possibility of using underwater gliders that could be equipped with carbohydrate sensors (oil is made up of carbohydrates). These could provide information on under-the-surface pollution. “We are operating three such ocean gliders, with the collaboration of the Weizmann Institute, Bar-Ilan University, the Hebrew University and the institution for Oceanographic and Limnological Research,” he explains. “Only one of these currently has sensors that are suitable, and it has just come back from repair work and is not back in operation yet. If you want one sensor to always be available, another glider must be equipped with one, with a team always on hand.”

The identification of a polluting incident in real time could be improved by aerial monitoring, but as with satellite monitoring, the system is imperfect. “Some countries are cooperating in such tracking,” said Yoav Ratner, the coordinator of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Center for Preparedness and Response to Sea Contamination. “We sometimes get help from the Air Force, but it’s not always possible to identify an oil slick with precision, and flights don’t cover the entire area at sea.”

Ratner adds that it would be possible to use drones such as the ones developed by Israel’s Aerospace Industries, currently used by the European Union for detecting illegal activity at sea. He says that the ministry is looking into using such drones, but this will also require a budget. Tracking is currently done mainly by satellites, but these often report suspicious spots of an indistinct nature, and it’s not feasible to send vessels to investigate every time such a spot is identified.

Unknown implications

In the short term, the polluted beaches will prevent swimming and surfing. On Sunday, the interior, health and environmental protection ministries called on the public not to visit beaches from Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border in the north to the Hof Ashkelon regional council near the border with the Gaza Strip in the south, due to the tar on the sand and in the water. Tar can contain toxic components, including volatile ones such as hydrogen sulfide, as well as heavy metals. The main risk of coming into contact with tar is skin irritation. The ministries’ announcement said that the prohibition on swimming, sports and other recreational beach activities was in place until further notice.

In the long run, the implications are unknown, and will only become fully understood as time passes. A particularly worrisome aspect is the large number of sea turtles that were impacted by the tar. Twelve have been found so far, but it’s possible that a much larger number was affected at sea. There are concerns that other marine mammals are also vulnerable. Populations of mammals and turtles along Israel’s coasts are relatively small and are at risk of extinction. A widespread impact could endanger their future.

In nature reserves with rocky ecosystems, operations for removing the tar will need to be considered, since the tar could suffocate many species in the area. “There are materials for removing the tar,” says Ratner, “but it’s important to verify that they don’t cause more harm than good.”

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