Israel to Prosecute Pipeline Company Officials Over Disastrous 2014 Oil Spill

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Crude oil leaked into the Evrona reserve in Arava region, north of Eilat, 2014.
Crude oil leaked into the Evrona reserve in Arava region, north of Eilat, 2014. Credit: Sasi Horesh

State prosecutors have informed the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company and five of its current and former senior officials that they would be prosecuted, subject to a hearing, for the oil spill in the Evrona nature reserve in 2014.

The company and officials are suspected of environmental violations, including aggravated water pollution and the illegal disposal of hazardous waste.

In December 2014, 5 million liters (1.3 million gallons) of crude oil leaked from the company’s pipeline into the Evrona reserve, located in the southern Arava region, just north of Eilat. The reserve spans 40 square kilometers (15.4 square miles).

The spill was related to the construction of the nearby Ramon airport, which required paving a new access road. This required changing the route followed by the pipeline and moving one section westwards, near the Be’er Ora junction.

During work done in moving the pipe, an engineering error occurred and the sections of pipe broke up, causing a leak of 5,000 cubic meters of crude oil. The oil polluted extensive areas in the reserve. The hardest-hit area spanned 35.5 acres, with experts assessing damage at over 100 million shekels.

The damage was significant since the reserve serves as an oasis and a focus of a wide diversity of flora and fauna living in an arid area. There is a large population of gazelles there that depend on the reserve’s acacia trees for their food. Experts are concerned that the trees’ exposure to oil has damaged the gazelles’ ability to multiply and renew their stocks.

A similar leak occurred in the same reserve 45 years ago, causing great damage to the acacia trees. Recently, extensive tests were conducted to establish different methods of rehabilitating the area, including removing oil residue that remains in the ground. But in practice, rehabilitation has not progressed very much.

The circumstances of the spill were investigated by the so-called Green Police of the Environmental Protection Ministry, assisted by the Nature and Parks Authority. The suspicion is that the main reason for the engineering error was a faulty execution of the project, including a violation of procedures and safety regulations established by the pipeline company. There was no detailed and charted plan for executing the work, with insufficient coordination between the company’s planners and its people doing the work.

The suspicion is that sections of pipe were connected without examining the safety and engineering implications of the connections. No one gave thought to the implications of the way the oil would flow through the pipe nor the direction in which it would flow. One of the key managers supervising the work left the site, even though his presence was essential.

Company workers started pumping crude oil through the pipe, creating pressure that were four times higher than the maximum allowed. One section of the pipe was ripped out of its connection, with oil bursting out in force across the reserve. Some of this was pumped out, but a large amount percolated into the upper ground layers of the reserve.

The hardest-hit area spanned 35.5 acres, with experts assessing damage at over 100 million shekels.Credit: Roee Talbi

The five employees summoned to a hearing committed several environmental violations. These include polluting water, depositing waste containing hazardous materials and the absence of a senior manager whose job was to supervise and prevent these transgressions.

The pipeline company is planning to increase the amount of oil flowing from Eilat to Ashkelon following an agreement it recently signed with a company which is partly owned by the United Arab Emirates. Up until now, it has not been asked to provide a report on the environmental and safety implications of this plan.

The director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Amit Bracha, said in response to the news that the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company is responsible for the biggest pollution to afflict the country since its establishment.

“The company has already been instructed to pay the public 100 million shekels in compensation for damaging the reserve, following a class action suit. The criminal prosecution of the company’s senior officials should also be considered, since they were responsible for these violations,” he said.

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