Judean Desert Area Damaged in Acid Spill to Be Closed at Least a Year

Large quantities of acid leaked into the Ashalim stream after a pool collapsed at a fertilizer plant in the southern Judean Desert

Leakage of acidic effluent from a local fertilizer plant affected 20 kilometers of Ashalim stream in Judean Desert.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The assessment of the damage caused by Friday’s acid leak in southern Israel is growing increasingly dire. Initially, environmental experts believed that the Ashalim stream and the surrounding nature reserve would have to be closed for a few weeks, after acid from a fertilizer plant contaminated the area. But by Sunday officials of the Nature and Parks Authority had revised their assessment and now say that hiking trails in the area will have to be closed for at least a year.

Large quantities of acid leaked into the Ashalim stream after a pool collapsed at the Rotem Amfert fertilizer plant in the southern Judean Desert. The Environmental Protection Ministry said it would be necessary to gradually pump out the effluent, which may threaten animal and plant life in the area.

Tens of thousands of cubic meters of the effluent leaked into the stream. On Saturday, the ministry said that, in addition to the foul odor caused by the spill, the leak might also affect freshwater reservoirs in the region used by wildlife including ibexes and gazelles.

Upon discovering the leak, the staff at the plant shut down the facility generating the effluent and tried to block its flow, but large quantities had already run into the stream. Effluent also later flowed onto Route 90, the Jerusalem-Eilat highway that runs near the Dead Sea shore. The road was closed for several hours over concerns that motorists would come into contact with the acid.

“The problem is not just pools of effluent and the ditches along the stream,” said NPA Southern District director Gilad Gabay. “Those we can pump.” The main problem is the penetration of the polluting effluent into the ground. “We don’t know what will come out of the ground with the first flood, which is why we want to be cautious and wait for it, to determine what the chemical makeup of the water will be and then decide if there can be contact with it or not.”

A walk along the stream shows the spill has already caused serious damage. A sharp acidic odor prevails in the area, and hundreds of plants on the stream bank have been damaged, with numerous acacia trees along the streambed liable to be damaged as well.

“This is a unique, one-of-a-kind disaster,” said NPA director Shaul Goldstein, as he toured the site 20-kilometer (12-mile) long stream. “We’ve never had anything of this scope before. It’s a stream that’s been totally contaminated by acid. This stream is one of the most beautiful in the Judean Desert, but that’s all gone, at least for this year. The ditches will be polluted for a long time. Even after the next flood we will, unfortunately, have to part from the stream and allow it to recover. The damage is far greater than we thought at the beginning. The stream will be closed for at least a year, if not longer.”

The rains in the area generally supply water for local wildlife even months after winter ends, but because there was a lack of rain this winter, the small natural pools created in the ditches evaporated months ago. NPA officials fear that these ditches, which are now filled with acidic water, will attract animals such as ibexes, gazelles and birds.

“The biggest problem is the birds,” said Gabay. “Unlike wild animals, birds have no sense of smell, so they are liable not to sense that they are drinking effluent until after they drink it and it will be too late.” To try to keep the birds away, the NPA has placed gas cannons that make shooting noises near the pools and ditches to keep the birds away. To protect animals, the inspectors have placed a number of 200- to 300-liter water troughs to provide an alternative to the acidic effluent.

Improving the supervision of the phosphate and other industrial plants at Mishor Rotem and limiting the environmental and landscape damage throughout the area will be a top priority for the authorities that will investigate the leak and deal with the contamination of the stream. But plans are for the industrial activity at Mishor Rotem to be expanded. There is a plan to erect an ammonia plant on a 350-dunam (86-acre) area that is making its way through the Southern District Planning Committee. There are already problems with deviations from the air pollution standards by some of the industrial installations, and there have been a few instances of pollution and foul odors as a result of Rotem Amfert’s efforts to exploit oil shale.

Rotem Amfert is under continuous supervision, the Environment Ministry says. “It’s a huge plant, and we go through it a few times a year,” said Baruch Weber, the southern district director for the ministry. “We’ve made various demands and they generally fulfill them, even if sometimes they’re a few months late.”

But it’s clear that the supervision was not sufficient to determine that there was a possible problem with the pool that leaked Friday, with the cause of the leak not yet known. Weber said that the pool was designed to withstand an earthquake. The ministry is expected now to increase the pressure on Rotem Amfert to upgrade some of its waste collection pools or even replace some of them.

Rehabilitation can take years, as demonstrated by the Evrona nature reserve, which was damaged nearly three years ago by a huge oil spill. The NPA has yet to decide how best to rehabilitate the land there, even though several companies have already tested various technologies to clean up the oil stains. To date the NPA prefers to wait, to see if perhaps nature can rehabilitate itself. Previously, large quantities of oil spilled into the Zin stream in June 2011.

Rotem Amfert issued a statement saying it was cooperating fully with the authorities. The plant operates 24 hours a day, producing phosphoric, acid-based fertilizers, among other products.