Wildlife Corridor or Solar Plant Site? Fight Over Future of Dunes in Southern Israel

State planners side with municipality in opposing 'greenwashing' by energy company

Zafrir Rinat
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Part of the area that Ashkelon plans to declare an ecological corridor.
Part of the area that Ashkelon plans to declare an ecological corridor.Credit: Boaz Shacham
Zafrir Rinat

The southern coastal city of Ashkelon is completing a new master plan that designates the sand dunes in the city’s southern part as an ecological corridor of high importance for the conservation of animals.

At the same time, the Europe Asia Pipeline Company has decided to build a solar energy facility in the same area to provide electricity to operate pumps for its oil pipeline. The Southern District Planning and Building Committee strongly opposes the solar plant plan, which it says would seriously harm the ecological corridor – and considers it an attempt to bolster the oil storage company’s control of the area.

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After the planning committee rejected a request for a permit to build the plan, the company filed an appeal with the National Planning and Building Council, which is being heard now.

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company, as it is known in its new incarnation – formerly the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company – has a large compound south of Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea which includes fuel storage tanks and other facilities. The company asked to receive a permit to construct at the northeastern end of the compound a solar panel array to produce electricity on 15 dunams (3.75 acres) of land to provide 3 megawatts of electricity.

The pipeline company is also scheduled to submit a plan soon to the National Infrastructure Committee to permit and authorize all its operations in the compound in Ashkelon, after it operated for years with own unique legal status, under a special law governing the company, and without proper planning status and permits.

The ecological corridor in the area is supposed to facilitate the movement of wildlife and the spread of wild plants. It is especially narrow next to the land where the solar plant would be built. The reason is that a plant nursery was built in the area years ago. Four years ago, the Adama company and ecologist Nir Maoz conducted a nature survey in the area for the Environmental Protection Ministry and the city of Ashkelon. The survey found that the southern dunes of the city contain a rich diversity of animals and plants adapted for the sandy environment. The area is also an important habitat for Israel’s indigenous mountain gazelles, and a relatively rare predator, the caracal, has been spotted there too.

The district committee’s main justification for not approving the solar power plant was that it would severely harm the ecological corridor, because it is located at the narrow bottleneck and would block it even more. The committee said taking the land away from the pipeline company and moving the fence in the area to widen the bottleneck should be considered instead.

In its appeal, the pipeline company claimed it has building rights, granted to it by the government, on the land for the construction of the solar panel array. During a hearing conducted by the appeals committee two weeks ago, company representatives said the area involved only very partially overlaps with the ecological corridor, and they offered a compromise that includes changes in the placement of the solar panels so they will not harm the corridor at all – but the planning committee rejected this proposal. The company also said it was a “green” plant that matches the government’s goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Israel. Company representatives also said that no other place in the compound was appropriate for the solar panels.

“Greenwashing,” is how the Southern District planner, Tomer Gutholf, called the company’s claims, because placing the panels in this spot was not environmentally beneficial – and the company had enormous amounts of space in the compound where they could build the solar facility instead. He called it an attempt to build facts on the ground that would allow the company to continue to hold on to the land after the overall planning process is completed in the future. Gutholf rejected the compromise proposal, saying that instead the corridor needed to be expanded, and leave the final decision on the compound to the National Infrastructure Committee in the future.

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