Israel's Southern Nature Reserves Are in Constant Danger of Oil Spills

A 2014 spill near Eliat was not an isolated incident, with indictment of Europe Asia Pipeline Co., Israeli government must force the company to operate safely

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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A polluted area caused by an oil spill is seen at the Evrona desert reserve, near the city of Eilat, 2014
A polluted area caused by an oil spill is seen at the Evrona desert reserve, near the city of Eilat, 2014Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

An indictment was filed Tuesday against the Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC), which is accused of causing a severe oil spill at the Evrona nature reserve near Eilat in December 2014. The company described the incident as an isolated mishap. But if one connects all the dots in this company’s mishaps, as well as other problematic aspects of the way it is managed, one gets a picture of a system that requires changes in the company’s status and mode of operation.

Leaks from the company’s pipeline have caused two severe incidents of pollution at nature reserves in the Negev and Arava over the last decade. What is particularly worrisome is that the company now intends to transfer millions of tons of oil, under an agreement it signed with a company from the United Arab Emirates. In recent years, the amount of oil passing through its pipeline has come to a few hundred thousand tons. This increases the risks to other nature reserves, also raising the risk of a leak near Ashkelon or Eilat, which would be an ecological disaster for the marine ecosystems there.

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Contending with increased oil transport requires adoption of a policy of risk management. But a survey of risks that the company presented to the Environmental Protection Ministry was rejected by ministry professionals as unsatisfactory. EAPC was hampered by the ministry’s refusal to approve its operations. According to a report in TheMarker, the company has asked the attorney general to instruct Minister Tamar Zandberg to halt her policy of non-cooperation.

When looking at EAPC’s operations and raison d’etre, one can understand why the environment minister finds it difficult to cooperate with this company, or to cooperate completely. Supposedly, EAPC is a government company, but its special status has given it the ability to promote moves that in essence bypass regulators. By contrast, no refinery or ammonia storage site could significantly increase the scope of its operations without facing stringent demands from the environment ministry for risk assessment, and without first notifying various regulators.

EAPC enjoys broad backing from the Finance Ministry, which is obviously interested in the company’s filling the state coffers through extensive oil trading. The company’s legal status allows it to make deals and change the scope of its operations while defining these as routine business transactions, to the point that company officials are surprised by public concern over its planned transport of such large quantities of oil.

Members of a clean-up team work at the site of an oil spill at the Evrona desert reserve, near the city of Eilat, 2014Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters

In recent years some changes have been made, and the company is now subordinate to the law regulating planning and construction, and requires approval by planning agencies to carry out some of its operations. However, as indicated by the agreement with the Emirates, the company still has some scope for independence, which no other body would have gotten in view of such a large risk.

The special status of EAPC must be revoked, and its operations adapted to a changing reality, mainly to the new climate-environmental reality. Oil is no longer a desired product, where planning is needed to make long-term profits. One can use installations operated by EAPC, as well as the company’s experience, to continue importing and storing fuels that are still necessary, and in a safe manner. But trading in polluting fuels must be stopped, and the company must become a body that operates under the same rules that apply to any other government company.

Chaya Erez, one of the attorneys who filed an earlier class action suit against EAPC, said that “one of the striking things is that the lawsuit stops at the level of deputy directors at the company without addressing people at the Finance Ministry who, by law, should be supervising it. The really important question is whether lessons will be learned, including that the immunity this company has had, and which it continues to enjoy, played a major role in the incidents, that monitoring and enforcement when it comes to polluting companies is far from satisfactory, and mainly that the way to prevent such disasters is to avoid big risks in advance, including EAPC’s plan to turn Israel into a bridge for moving oil.”

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