Massive Israeli Oil Spill Spurs Bill on Sea Pollution Preparedness

The environmental protection ministry's proposed resolution once again shows that only a major crisis can prod the government into action to protect the environment, environmental groups say

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A baby turtle covered in tar found on a Hadera beach after Wednesday's oil spill.
A baby turtle covered in tar found on a Hadera beach after Wednesday's oil spill. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

The Environmental Protection, Interior and Health Ministries submitted a cabinet resolution this week on bolstering the country’s preparedness to deal with maritime pollution following the devastating oil spill that took place off Israel's shores Wednesday.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports the plan.

Her announcement, five days after large quantities of tar inundated Israel’s beaches, once again showed that only a major crisis can prod the government into action to protect the environment.

In addition to providing immediate funding to clean up the tar and rehabilitate the damage it caused to the environment, the resolution would bolster the ministry’s staff to help it deal with such incidents. The resolution also promises to enact a national plan for dealing with maritime pollution and pledges funding for local governments affected by the incident.

The cabinet actually approved such a national plan in 2008, but it was never enacted into law or implemented. The plan calls for using subcontractors and naval vessels to deal with minor incidents of pollution and to seek help from other countries in the event of a major incident.

According to Attorney Tami Gannot of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V’Din), “The plan doesn’t provide a perfect solution, but it’s an important start.”

The ministry has been criticized for not responding quickly enough to the incident and for failing to determine the source of the pollution. Five days later, it’s still not clear exactly where the tar came from, though the source is apparently oil that leaked from a tanker about a week ago.

Environmental groups have been trying for more than a decade to persuade the government to allocate the necessary funding, personnel and authority to deal with such pollution, but to no avail.

Much more could be done to monitor to maritime pollution. Today, such monitoring is done mainly by satellites. But sometimes, it’s hard to determine from satellite images what a suspect stain contains, and it’s difficult to send out a ship every time such a stain is spotted.

Radar might provide a good alternative, as Israel has several experts in radar systems that could monitor waves and track the movement of pollution through the sea. But so far, no plan to set up such a system has been approved.

“We suggested to government ministries that we operate radar systems that enable monitoring up to 100 kilometers away,” said Prof. Hezi Gildor of Hebrew University’s Institute of Earth Sciences. “All we asked for was funding for their maintenance, because we operate several such systems in academia. But we didn’t manage to get the funding.”

“We also suggested using buoys that can be placed in pollution spills and track the progress of the pollution through satellite broadcasting,” he added. “But in this case, too, our request to fund the operation of the buoys wasn’t granted.”

Israelis cleaning up Herzliya beach after Wednesday's devastating oil spill.

Yet another option, Gildor said, is to use ocean gliders equipped with sensors to detect hydrocarbons. These devices could provide information about underwater pollution as well.

“In cooperation with the Weizmann Institute, Bar-Ilan University, the Hebrew University and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute, we operate three such gliders,” he said. “Today, only one has the appropriate sensors, but it just returned from repairs and hasn’t yet been put into use. If you always want there to be one on alert, that requires equipping another with these sensors and maintaining on-call staff.”

Aerial monitoring can also be used to track pollution, and some countries do so, said Yoav Ratner, the Environmental Protection Ministry official in charge of preparedness for maritime pollution. Nevertheless, this isn’t a perfect solution.

“We occasionally make use of the air force, but it’s not always possible to identify a pollution stain precisely, and the flights don’t cover the entire sea,” he explained.

The whale that washed up on Nitzanim beach in Israel's south, a few days ago.Credit: Ilan Assayag

It might be possible to use drones, as the European Union already does, and the ministry is exploring this option, he added. But that too, would require suitable funding.

Now that the pollution has already arrived, Ratner warned, cleaning it up won’t be so easy. “There are various materials that could be used to remove the tar,” he said. “But it’s important to make sure they don’t do more harm than good.”

Moreover, these materials aren’t stockpiled in Israel, so they would have to be imported.

Prof. Baruch Rinkevich of the National Institute of Oceanography added that some of the oil will dissolve into the water, which could expose marine animals to poisonous materials. How great the damage will be depends on how much oil spilled and how it disperses through the water.

Gannot said another problem is that local governments are often forced to take responsibility for cleaning up pollution without receiving the necessary funding from the central government, or even guarantees that they will be reimbursed.

She also criticized the government for continuing to expand its use of fossil fuels rather than transitioning to a carbon-free economy. Just this Sunday, Netanyahu met with Egypt’s minister for petroleum and mineral resources, Tarek El Molla, to discuss energy cooperation. This includes cooperation on exploiting both countries’ natural gas reserves, and drilling for natural gas also produces large quantities of oil.

Maya Jacobs, CEO of the environmental organization Zalul, also criticized the Environmental Protection Ministry for its silence on the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company’s plans to expand its oil transport business between the Gulf of Eilat and the Mediterranean Sea. Referring to the recent inundation of tar, she warned, “If there’s a pollution incident on this scale in the Gulf of Eilat, we can kiss the coral reefs goodbye.”

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