In Israel's Negev, Residents Ask Court to Save Ancient Palm Trees From Industrial Pollution

Industrial sewage from phosphate plants have already caused acute damaged to palm trees in the Zin and Akrabim streams nature reserve

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
Endangered grove of palm trees in an eastern Negev nature reserve.
Endangered grove of palm trees in an eastern Negev nature reserve.Credit: Roy Galili
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

A group of local residents are demanding immediate action by Israel Chemicals and its Rotem Amfert subsidiary to save an endangered grove of palm trees in an eastern Negev nature reserve. The trees have been acutely damaged by pollution allegedly caused by the companies’ phosphate plants in the area.

The group asked a Be’er Sheva court on Wednesday to order the companies to take immediate measures to stop the harm their industrial sewage was causing the palm trees in the Zin and Akrabim streams nature reserve. Experts say 32 of the palm trees are in stages of dying and all of them are in danger of extinction due to the pollution caused by the plants.

The group, represented by lawyers Zvi Levinson and Gil Dror and the Adam Teva V’Din NGO, asked Be’er Sheva District Court 18 months ago for permission to file a class action suit against ICL.

In its request to order ICL and Rotem Amfert to take urgent measures to save the palm trees, the group submitted test results proving the trees’ acute distress and immediate danger. Salinity tests in the soil around the palm trees’ roots proves the damage that had been done to the trees by the industrial sewage, which is highly saline, they told the court.

The request is based on an opinion of agronomist Dr. Effie Tripler, who wrote: “The trees that can still be saved in the Zin and Akrabim fountains are in a degree of distress that requires immediate action to prevent their final extinction. Trees are subjected to a combination of specific toxicity and high salt concentration in the soil solution in which the trees’ roots grow.”

Tripler said the saline concentration around the roots must be reduced by rinsing the soil continuously with potable water.

The court also received an opinion of Professor Guy Bar-Oz of Haifa University, a researcher of primordial landscapes, regarding the palm trees’ importance. He wrote that studies have shown that the trees near the streams are remnants of the first palm trees that had been cultivated in the ancient East and have a unique genetic composition.

“The trees in Ein Zin and Ein Akrabim are a sort of rare archaeological finding,” wrote Bar-Oz. “They have a high scientific value and are a significant part of the region’s cultural natural treasures.”

In past court hearings ICL and Rotem Amfert gave the court expert opinions claiming there is no proof that sewage emanating from the phosphate plant in Zin had caused the damage to the palm trees. These opinions suggest the harm was caused by a beetle or by a lower surface of groundwater in the area, which caused the trees to dry out.

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