Signs of Life – and Ecological Disaster – at Evrona Nature Reserve, Four Months After Spill

Black storks can now be seen in the southern Israeli nature spot – but it’s not because they’re covered in crude oil.

Sasi Horesh

A special flight recently landed at southern Israel’s Evrona nature reserve, which was severely damaged by a major oil spill four months ago. The visitors were a flock of black storks on their annual migration trip to Africa, stopping for the food and shelter provided by nature at this spot in the Arava Desert.

The storks, along with other birds whose song can be heard across the reserve, attest to the recovery of fauna in the area. However, signs of the oil damage are still evident everywhere and complete recovery will take a long time. Indeed, nature-conservation experts aren’t sure what the long-term implications of the spill – when five million liters of crude oil escaped – will be on the reserve’s flora and fauna.

A day before the storks arrived last week, the Environmental Protection Ministry declared that air pollution in the reserve was no longer an issue and the reserve’s gates would be reopening to the public. In practice, it has already been open for several weeks. In the reserve, one can follow a marked trail – from which it is forbidden to stray – in order to provide living space for the numerous types of wildlife there.

Visitors will no longer encounter puddles of oil, but there are still strips of oil residue – remnants of the spill that occurred when the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline leaked on December 4. The leak occurred when work was being done to alter the pipeline’s route, necessary due to construction of the new Eilat international airport at Timna.

The desperate efforts to save the reserve can still be witnessed, in the form of hurriedly erected berms that created a reservoir for some of the oil to flow into. This immediate response prevented oil seepage toward Jordan. However, on the way to this pool, oil streams spanning several kilometers flowed through the reserve. Although the spillage didn’t cover a wide area, it did hit a central artery of the reserve where many acacia trees are located; these serve as a focal source of life for other species.

Evrona is one of the few salt flat habitats left in Israel. Due to high salt levels in the ground, specialized plants have developed there, and the high level of the local water table and rich vegetation have made the reserve home to numerous forms of wildlife. Most salt flats in the Arava Desert have disappeared due to development and agricultural use of the land. Wildlife in Evrona is trapped between the fence on the Jordanian border and the busy Arava road on the other. Route 90 makes animal movement dangerous, with many road fatalities. Predators such as wolves and hyenas can jump over the border fence, but often fall prey to hunters. Evrona was supposed to be their safe haven.

The spill necessitated urgent and widespread action, which damaged the upper layers of the soil. “The soil here is like a delicate mosaic and is easily damaged by heavy equipment, which disrupted the natural flow of floodwater,” says Doron Nissim, regional manager of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, adding, “We had 730 oil puddles and pumped out 2 million liters of oil.”

 

Following the work, the INPA proceeded with more targeted cleanup operations, using lighter equipment in order to reduce the damage to the soil.

Now, four months on, silence once more reigns over the reserve. The big puddles and heavy equipment are gone, as are some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that were used to monitor the damage. However, there is still an emergency reservoir sited at one end of the reserve. “If there are floods, which can occur in May, this will help prevent any flow of residual oil toward Eilat,” explains Nissim.

Some Negev turtles can be seen near the worst-hit areas. These are important parts of the reserve’s fauna. Female gazelles were spotted last week, unintimidated by vehicles. A female gazelle and her fawn were also seen close to the path, indicating that gazelles are returning to their quiet routine here, after escaping to the reserve’s northern edge in fear of the heavy equipment that was used to pump out the oil.

These gazelles depend on the acacia trees for food, and for liquids extracted from the foliage. Four trees were severely damaged, and it is not yet known if the hundreds of others were damaged in ways yet to be detected. Some trees and bushes show signs of desiccation due to the spillage.

The ongoing challenge now lies in finding a way to adequately treat the remaining damage. The INPA and the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) requested professional help for cleaning the soil, and are now examining several proposals.

The latest spill – not the first to hit Evrona – has led to calls for increased supervision of the pipeline company and a reevaluation of what infrastructure is needed in such sensitive environmental locations.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is hampered by the autonomy granted to the pipeline company in its concessionary contract (EAPC operates in secrecy, with all media coverage of it subject to approval by the army censor). The ministry has called for a survey of environmental risks posed by the company’s operations, in a bid to forecast possible future scenarios and responses.