Analysis

Israel's Acid Spill: A Test of Ties Between Nature Group and Industry

Despite cooperative efforts such as agreed-upon pollution monitoring, park officials failed to foresee spill at plant that will paralyze the area for over a year

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

The contamination of a fragile nature reserve by industrial acid begs questions about the relationship between Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority and Rotem Amfert, the industrial giant responsible for the leak into the Ashalim stream.

For instance, INPA and the company run a program for schoolchildren, featuring outings and classroom lectures, on industry and preservation of the environment – and the tension between the two. However, the effluent leaked from Rotem Amfert’s fertilizer plant in the southern Judean Desert will shutter hiking trails in the area for at least a year, parks authority officials said Sunday. One has to wonder now whether the content of those lessons for the youngsters will change.

As part of their working relationship, Rotem Amfert actually pays INPA for the hours its official inspectors spend examining its industrial sites (which is not an unusual arrangement, by the way). But one has to wonder whether that relationship affects INPA’s zeal for locating and handling potential risks.

Raviv Shapira, INPA's deputy director, believes that his authority's cooperation with Israel Chemicals, the parent company of Rotem Amfert, has proved its worth over the years. One cannot preserve nature on one’s own, he argues.

“We cannot wield influence without collaborating with civilians and industry, too," says Shapira. "So we took the strategic decision to enter a partnership with ICL, so environmental considerations would be reflected in the routine operation of the industry, and in the company’s world view. I think it proved to be the right step.”

For instance, collaborative efforts have managed to reduce the environmental impact of ICL’s mining operations (for potash and phosphate), claims Shapira.

Ecological blight

Improving supervision over phosphate mining, sewage treatment and operations of other plants located on the Mishor Rotem plateau, west of the Dead Sea, is crucial. Some sand dunes known for their rich variety of flora and fauna remain, says Roy Talbi, a former INPA inspector and ecologist, but most are slated for development. Only a tiny area, has been earmarked for preservation, he says, and the whole area has become an ecological blight.

Worse, industrial activity in Mishor Rotem is expected to increase. Currently, a plan to build a giant ammonia production plant on 350 dunams (about 88 acres) awaits formal approval, although some of the existing plants already do not comply with pollution-prevention regulations.

In particular, there have been claims of air pollution and stench nuisance caused by Rotem Amfert's oil-shale utilization plant. Some of the industries in the area have been ordered to reduce their emissions.

The Environmental Protection Ministry says operations at Rotem Amfert are routinely supervised.

“It’s a giant plant. We tour it several times a year,” stated Baruch Weber, southern district manager for the ministry. “We have made various demands, and usually it complies, even if sometimes after a delay of a few months."

Evidently, such monitoring efforts failed to detect the problem – the collapsed wall of a pool at the fertilizer plant – that caused tens of thousands of cubic meters of acid to leak last Friday. Why the wall collapsed is not clear: The plant is supposed to be able to withstand even earthquake.

As a result of the spill, the ministry is expected to press Rotem Amfert to upgrade some of its waste-collection facilities, or build new ones.

Rehabilitating the befouled Ashalim stream could take years, if to judge by the example of Evrona, a nature reserve in the Arava valley that was contaminated by a major oil spill. That was almost three years ago but IPNA has yet to take a formal decision to clean it up. In the meantime, a number of commercial concerns have tried to come up with means to clean up the damaged area, but the parks authority seems to prefer to sit back and wait for nature to do the job itself.