Southern Israeli Stream Still Heavily Polluted Year After Industrial Spill

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The Ashalim stream following the 2017 pollution accident
The Ashalim stream in the Negev two weeks after the pollution accident in June 2017 in which effluent from the Rotem Amfert fertilizer plant leaked into the streambed.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A year after industrial waste leaked into the Ashalim stream in the Negev, recent flooding has done its part in cleaning up the streambed, but extensive cleanup work is still needed to rehabilitate the stream.

The Ashalim stream, which was massively polluted in June 2017 when the wall of a large pool at the nearby Rotem Amfert fertilizer plant collapsed, remains off limits to visitors due to concern that they would be exposed to hazardous substances. The liquid that gushed out of the holding pool contained plaster residue with high levels of acid and other toxic substances. The effluent flowed through the entire streambed leading to the Dead Sea. In addition to polluting the stream, the wastewater polluted a floodwater reservoir near the Dead Sea Works.

Immediately after the spill, on the orders of the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Rotem Amfert took steps to pump out industrial effluent that had accumulated in seasonal ponds in part of the stream, ponds that are filled with water only part of the year. But tests showed that large quantities of pollutants had accumulated in the soil and remained in the streambed. Since the leak, the ministry and the parks authority have been monitoring the situation and have been examining options for rehabilitation of the stream. Although the streambed remains closed to visitors, the parks authority now allows traffic on the road that crosses over it. Until a few months ago, that road had also been closed.

The region experienced major flooding in April that caused large quantities of water to flow into the lower stretch of the Ashalim stream. Immediately afterwards, tests were conducted to find out whether the floodwater diluted concentrations of pollutants. “The flooding significantly reduced acidity in some of the seasonal ponds,” said Gilad Gabay, the parks authority’s southern district director, but not its entire length and the extent to which pollution levels decreased also varied. “As a result, there is a need for additional work to clean up the stream,” he said.

In those areas that the flood didn’t affect, there is still a lot of pollution and a strong smell of acid. One plan being examined is to channel large quantities of water through a pipeline into the streambed to flush out residual contamination in the soil. Polluted soil that swept through the stream and eventually reached a diversion channel built many years ago to stop floodwaters must also be removed.

The ministry and the parks authority have demanded that Israel Chemicals, which owns Rotem Amfert, clean up the soil in the area. This has not yet been done, in part out of concern that there may be old land mines that had been laid in the area by the Israeli army.

Along with the rehabilitation work, the criminal investigation into the leak continues. Last month the parks authority also filed a request with the Be’er Sheva District Court to certify a class action suit against Israel Chemicals and Rotem Amfert seeking 307 million shekels ($84.7 million) in compensation for the damage caused to the stream and its vicinity.

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