Israeli Panel Urges New Policy for Early Detection of Coastal Oil Spills

Committee set up after a major oil leak caused Israel's worst-ever maritime pollution urges the creation of an intelligence apparatus to prevent similar cases

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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An oil tanker at Eilat's port, last month.
An oil tanker at Eilat's port, last month.Credit: Sassy Horesh
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

A committee set up after the tar pollution of Israel’s beaches earlier this year recommended a significant bolstering of personnel and equipment in the Environmental Protection Ministry. Implementation depends on collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office and the ministries of defense and finance.

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A committee composed of the directors-general of several ministries urged that an intelligence apparatus be established for early detection of and warning of oil leaks at sea, in addition to boosting personnel and equipment at the ministry. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg has adopted these recommendations. In the past, the treasury argued that the Environment Ministry receives the necessary funds and that the decision on how to use them be left up to the ministry. Recently, treasury officials said they were ready to discuss this as part of the talks over the next state budget.

In February, Israel’s beaches were severely polluted due to the leak of tens of tons of oil from a tanker called Emerald, which was 130 kilometers (81 miles) off Israel’s coast. The Environment Ministry was unaware of the accident and began dealing with it only after masses of tar from the oil reached the beaches. After the clean-up, accomplished in large measure by volunteers, Israel asked for compensation from an international fund for incidents of maritime pollution. This request was accepted a few months ago.

Experts and environmental groups warned that the incident proved that Israel was unprepared for marine pollution. They warned that an extensive oil spill would cause heavy damage to Israel’s beaches, the most important focus of tourism and leisure activities in the country. Furthermore, a large-scale incident would severely damage some of Israel’s most important nature reserves, such as the Rosh Hanikra and Habonim reserves. The most serious threat comes from oil reaching desalination plants located along the coast and disrupting their operation.

According to the committee’s recommendations, the intelligence-gathering apparatus to be established at the Environment Ministry will include early warning through a system of satellites, in coordination with the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), and the establishment of coastal radar to detect signs of pollution. The committee also recommended that the Defense Ministry set up a system of detection and aerial monitoring of impending pollution.

Establishing such a system does not guarantee that every oil pollution will be detected on time. A few months ago, Fredric Hebert, head of EMSA’s department of sustainability and technical assistance, told a Haifa University conference that no country or group of countries has the ability to scan and constantly monitor the entire maritime space along its coasts. He also noted that satellite images do not always allow clear identification of oil slicks, and are limited by weather conditions. Another tool, unmanned drones, is a fragile one, with no current safety regulations.

One of the lessons from February’s oil spill is that the unit for protecting marine environments at the Environment Ministry suffered dire shortages in manpower and equipment. The committee recommended the addition of 20 positions to give the unit a “reasonable response” to incidents of maritime pollution. The marine unit will have to contend with growing challenges such as the implementation of the deal to move oil from the United Arab Emirates by the Europe-Asia Pipeline Company. The committee also recommended that the government assist in operating a network of volunteers such as the one run by the nonprofit EcoOcean, which helped clean up beaches during the recent tar pollution incident.

Furthermore, the committee recommends that legislation be completed so that a law for regulating national preparedness and response to such incidents is put in place. This law is necessary partly so the Environment Ministry’s status as a national agent that directs operations during pollution incidents be instated, with its budget geared to tackle these events.

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