Tar Covering Israel's Beaches Doesn't Bode Well for Its Handling of the Next Major Oil Spill

Zafrir Rinat
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Israeli soldiers clean up tar from the recent oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at Sharon Beach on Monday.
Israeli soldiers clean up tar from the recent oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at Sharon Beach on Monday.Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Zafrir Rinat

The trucks starting to cart away the tar deposits on Israel’s Mediterranean beaches in recent days were supposed to signal the end of one of the most difficult and extensive environmental pollution incidents to hit Israel in recent decades. But contending with the ramifications of this incident is far from over.

Large amounts of tar are apparently lying on the sea floor and in rocky areas, which constitute about a third of the country’s shore. On Thursday, there were reports of additional tar reaching some locations. Meanwhile, the investigation of the incident is raising more questions than answers. Here are some of the key questions relating to the degree of preparedness and the ability to organize in the face of similar incidents that are very likely to occur in the future:

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Source of pollution

The current incident has underscored the limits of our information regarding the activity over large maritime areas congested with vessels. Even now, there are no clear answers regarding the origin of the oil spill and how it was generated. Information based on satellite images provided to Israel by the European Maritime Safety Agency delineates an area of 10 square kilometers (3.9 square miles), 50 kilometers (31 miles) offshore, opposite the city of Ashdod.

Ran Amir, head of the department for protection of the marine environment at the Environment Protection Ministry, notes that this delineation is still an assumption which has not been conclusively confirmed. “The identity of the vessel which caused the oil spill is currently based on several assumptions which we’re trying to verify or dismiss, in order to focus on the true culprit,” notes Amir. The spill apparently occurred on February 11, reaching the coast a week later.

The reasons for the spill are unclear, as is the exact type of oil. Samples of the tar have been sent to several laboratories. They are taking some time to be identified due to the need to precisely trace its composition, which involves a lengthier and more complex process.

The European Maritime Safety Agency said in an official statement that since it does not routinely monitor Israeli waters, it cannot determine whether the spills detected in the area are the source of the massive leak that had marred Israel's beaches.   

"EMSA’s CleanSeaNet service routinely monitors European waters for illegal discharges from ships and offshore platforms, and the results of this analysis are communicated in near real time (usually less than 20 minutes) to Member States and to the beneficiary countries of European Neighbourhood Policy projects (SAFEMED IV and BCSEA) who have signed the Conditions of Use for this service," the statement said.

"Israel is not a user of CleanSeaNet under the SAFEMED IV project, and therefore its waters are not routinely monitored by the service. Following a request received from the Israeli authorities and REMPEC on 17 February, we re-checked images in the Eastern Mediterranean and found two possible spills that could possibly be linked to the pollution incident to which you refer."

"However, due to the fact that Israeli waters are not routinely monitored by CleanSeaNet and no alert and verification system was in place, it is impossible to say for sure that the spills detected are actually the ones causing the pollution incident," according to the statement.

Spotting an oil slick

Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Ministry did not succeed in locating the spill and treating it at sea by using various methods of blocking it and pumping it away. The main means of spotting oil pollution at sea, when unreported by the party responsible for the leak, is using satellite images. The ministry has been receiving satellite images from the EMSA on an ongoing basis, but this has been discontinued, due to the way the satellite operated. Recently, there have been talks of renewing this service but Amir says that even without an agreement, the ministry was supposed to receive a warning when a satellite identified a spill.

This was based on the Barcelona Treaty, also known as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, to which Israel is a signatory. No such warning was received this time. The dependence on European satellites is puzzling, since Israel has sophisticated systems for detection and warning of its own in its defense-related operations. According to Semion Polinov, a researcher at Haifa University’s Research Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy, it’s possible to set up a satellite monitoring network which would track events outside Israel’s territorial waters.

“With some improvements, the system could track larger maritime areas, at a greater frequency,” he said. “It’s important to set up a team composed of representatives from the academic world, state authorities, startup companies and others. They can hold roundtable discussions and share information, leading to solutions for regular or emergency situations. Apparently, the number of such incidents will only grow. There will be more uncertainty regarding the type, power and momentum of the next incident.

“Ministries such as the one for environmental protection must employ experts on various topics, maintaining constant contact with them,” he continued. “They don’t need to have full-time positions and can work only periodically. This way the ministry can obtain professional information from them and hear their opinions in areas they are familiar with, since academics are usually up-to-date in their areas. Otherwise, the ministry will base its decisions on outdated methods, unable to give effective solutions.”

According to Amir, the ministry tried to recruit the military to help in providing ongoing monitoring, but the air force was not enthusiastic about carrying out a civilian mission requiring the tracing of environmental hazards. Professionals agree that coastal radars could help, since they trace waves and currents up to distances of 90 kilometers. This could help detect the movement of oil slicks. Recently, an inter-ministerial committee of professionals responsible for monitoring the sea decided that there was justification for setting up such a system, but this has not been implemented yet.

The cleanup effort

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, this current operation has been an effective and successful one. Local authorities employed their emergency plans, and a network of volunteers run by the nonprofit EcoOcean organization mobilized for cleaning the beaches.

Environmental groups were much less enthusiastic. “There should have been inspectors from the ministry on the beaches, organizing and coordinating operations, but the ministry doesn’t have the manpower for that,” says Maya Jacobs, CEO of the Zalul environmental association. “It’s unthinkable that a nonprofit organization direct and execute such an operation. Who will guarantee that it’s sustained over a long period?”

In contrast, Amir argues that reliance on volunteers stems from the need for many hands, and that this is the situation in many countries in cases of extensive beach pollution. He notes that in some areas, significant progress was made in cleaning beaches, including Netanya, Herzliya and southern beaches. Along with this progress, one cannot ignore the fact that during the first days there was little clarity over what needed to be done, and many volunteers arrived with their children, despite the risks involved in handling tar.

Maritime environmental protection

This is a key issue, in light of the strategic importance of offshore areas. The sea provides the water for Israel’s desalination plants. Without this water, the Electric Corporation’s power stations cannot be cooled. The national unit for protecting the marine environment has to carry out a wide variety of tasks in addition to preventing the pollution of the sea by oil. The unit relies almost exclusively on a fund dedicated to the prevention of maritime pollution, financed partly by fines and levies imposed on factories, vessels and other agencies.

According to Amir, the fund does have a budget for long-term expenses such as buying equipment, but the current budget for running expenses is in deficit. The deficit stems partly from a stop in payments made by the sewage treatment plant of the Greater Tel Aviv area. This plant used to pay 15 million shekels ($4.6 million) a year due to its direction of residual sludge into the Mediterranean. This stopped after the sludge began to be treated on land. The unit lacks at least 10 full-time positions, including ones for inspectors. The Finance Ministry has promised to create eight such positions, but since an updated state budget has not been passed for quite a while, this has not happened yet.

“In order to ensure continuous monitoring, we need two stations for preventing pollution, including vessels, pumping equipment and monitoring equipment,” says Amir. “You need 15 people in each of these stations so they can work around the clock, seven days a week. There is a station under construction in the south, and a northern one with five employees.”

The Finance Ministry responded by saying that “in recent years, the Environmental Protection Ministry has received 20 new positions. The ministry prioritizes and allocates which unit receives these positions. Moreover, the protection of the maritime environment is financed by a designated fund. As of the beginning of 2021, this fund had a surplus of 120 million shekels, with annual running costs of only 18 million shekels in recent years.”

Damage to the ecosystem

Israel’s maritime environment and adjacent coastal areas have experienced chronic tar pollution in the past, but not a singular event of such large proportions as this last one. Beside what was observed on the beaches, divers have reported in recent days the presence of numerous large lumps of tar on the sea floor, in areas such as the nature reserve on Habonim Beach in the Carmel area.

“Luckily, the waves caused by the storm cast the tar over the flat rocky platforms that lie near the shore, which are very important,” says Dr. Ruth Yahel, a marine ecologist at the Nature and Parks Authority.

These platforms provide a habitat for many species of animals. One of the species that takes part in building these platforms is a marine snail, which uses a calcium-based material it excretes. For unknown reasons, this snail disappeared 25 years ago, but was rediscovered two years ago. Officials of the nature authority were relieved to find that these snails had not been harmed by the pollution.

“We can’t see what’s happening in the water, especially with soluble components of the oil,” notes Yahel. “Will these compounds damage the food chain, and how many of these components will reach the bottom and remain there? We’ll see the damage in the future, and it’s important that the public pays attention then too, with help arriving for monitoring and studying the effects.”

Dr. Eli Adler, Amir’s predecessor, is confident in the Israeli coast’s ability to overcome its hardships. On social media he wrote, “Israel’s Mediterranean coast, exposed to winter storms, to the high energies of an open sea, to strong solar radiation and relatively warm sea temperatures, has the natural ability to rehabilitate, renew and recover, abilities that are very significant.”

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