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Pollution Courtesy of Israel Chemicals

ICL's Rotem Amfert caused significant pollution to a stream in the Negev last year. Company officials were presented with options to resolve the problem, but the high cost must have deterred them from fixing it

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The Ashalim stream in the Negev.
The Ashalim stream in the Negev.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A number of years ago Israel Chemicals Ltd. launched an advertising campaign congratulating itself for its environmental work. “There isn’t a single area of activity that the green virus hasn’t infected,” the narrator of one video clip noted wryly in relation to ICL’s many plants.

The company’s operations were presented as one giant project to save the planet and humanity. Of course, the videos did not mention the deep scars that the company’s phosphate mining has caused to the landscape in the Negev or the company’s role in the drop in the level of the Dead Sea.

Last week, the Channel 10 program “Hamakor”(“The Source”) broadcast an investigative report on the severe pollution that ICL’s Rotem Amfert subsidiary caused to the Ashalim stream in the Negev last year. The report gave the public a glimpse of the real situation behind the advertising, making use of internal company documents.

The ecological disaster in the stream was caused by the collapse of the wall of a pool where effluent generated by Rotem Amfert’s production operations collected. The runoff contained a highly acidic mixture of gypsum and water and various pollutants. The polluted water flowed into the stream, killing plant and animal life the length of the streambed.

Senior officials at Rotem Amfert said they had been surprised by what had happened and had no explanation for the collapse, but internal documents disclosed by “Hamakor” showed that company executives had been aware of the potential for the pool wall’s collapse for 20 years, a concern that grew over the years as experts visited the site. The last internal report, issued a year before the accident, stated that there was a real risk that gypsum and water would leak into the Ashalim stream.

Company officials were presented with options to resolve the problem. From what can be gleaned from the documents, it can be concluded that the high cost involved deterred them from taking the proper decision.

Documents presented by the state in response to a request for certification of a class action suit against Rotem Amfert showed that the company had solid information about the risk presented by the wall of the effluent pool. At least some of this information was presented to staff of the Environmental Protection Ministry, but that was only after the Ashalim stream was turned from a wonderful nature reserve into a pollution site for the foreseeable future.

The extent of the criminal liability of company executives will be determined only after the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police wrap up their investigation of the incident, but enough information has been presented up to now to require a reexamination of the operations of Israel Chemicals, which has been entrusted by the state with Israel’s most valuable natural resources. Due to the strategic importance of the phosphate mines and the Dead Sea, there appears to be a need for staff to be convened to monitor ICL’s operations, and that would include experts and government ministry representatives. The team would be responsible to assess damage caused by the company in the past and how it can be repaired. The damage includes several important springs in the area whose water quality has been seriously damaged by industrial pollution from ICL’s manufacturing plants.

It is essential for the oversight team to have access to all relevant documents. Of course, it should also be made clear to company executives that they would bear criminal liability if it turns out that they had information about an ecological disaster about to happen but chose not to share the information with the government agency that was to have been overseeing their activities. The resources in the Dead Sea and the Negev are too valuable to entrust them without appropriate oversight to those whose only interest is to generate profits from their exploitation.

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