Two Weeks After Major Oil Spill, Israel Continues Search for Its Source

Israel has a list of 23 ships it thinks might be responsible for the unreported spill that has caused its worst maritime pollution in decades

Zafrir Rinat
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A man cleans newly washed up black tar from a beach north of Netanya following an unreported oil spill.
A man cleans newly washed up black tar from a beach north of Netanya following an unreported oil spill.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Zafrir Rinat

The Environmental Protection Ministry has set out to look at 23 ships in the search for the source of the oil spill that poured tons of tar along the coast last month, it said Monday. Twelve other ships have been considered but ruled out, according to the ministry.

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The ministry has received results from lab tests on samples taken of the oil washing over the coast, but there is no final determination yet on their significance, Rani Amir, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Marine Division, told reporters. 

Defending the ministry from criticism of its response to the spill, Amir said that even had there been advance warning, sending ships to pump the oil out of the water before it reached the shore was a complicated operation and that most of the oil would have almost certainly still washed ashore. 

Cleanup of a Haifa beach following the unreported oil spill that polluted the coast last month.Credit: Rami Shllush

Beaches remained closed Monday, two weeks after the first appearance of an estimated 1,000 tons of black tar from the leak that washed up on over 90 percent of  the country's 195 kilometer (120 mile) coastline. The government is awaiting the results of water quality testing before potentially reopening some beaches, which remain closed along the coast. 

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel meanwhile said it had been a mistake to allow an increase in the traffic of oil tankers as part of the Abraham Accords with several other countries. “To transport fuel in such a sensitive place is support for an inherently anti-environmental initiative,” she said. “We want to hold a discussion and have turned to the National Security Council on the matter.”

Water samples from various points along the coast were taken for analysis soon after the oil began washing up. Results are expected in the coming days, and if they show there is no risk from the water, the Health Ministry expects to gradually permit access to beaches cleared as unpolluted.

The cause of the spill has not been identified. On Sunday, the Environmental Protection Ministry said that the Minerva Helen, a Greek tanker, ruled out as a source of the unreported oil spill, following an inspection of the ship.

When the pollution surfaced, the ministry initially identified roughly 10 ships in the region as possible culprits. Subsequently, the names of dozens of other ships were added to the list. 

After the pollution was first spotted on February 17, the Environmental Protection Ministry said the most likely source of the oil was an unreported spill of perhaps dozens of tons of oil from a tanker. The ministry has not yet disclosed the type of oil involved, but researchers from Hebrew University’s Hermann Institute of Earth Sciences who collected samples of the tar said that they believe it is from crude oil.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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