Editorial |

Routine Pollution of Israel's Desert

Latest pollution incident ought to compel the state to reexamine the overall environmental impact of the phosphate industries

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The scene of the acid spillage into Ashilim stream in the southern Judean Desert on June 30, 2017.
The scene of the acid spillage into Ashilim stream in the southern Judean Desert, June 30, 2017.Credit: Environmental Protection Ministry

Nature reserves in Israel’s desert regions have repeatedly suffered severe blows over the last six years by way of pollution from infrastructure facilities. The latest occurred last Friday, when thousands of cubic meters of water with a high concentration of acids leaked from a reservoir run by Rotem Amfert Negev, a company that makes phosphate-based fertilizers, into a nature reserve in the Judean Desert. This was preceded by two cases in which oil and airplane fuel leaked from pipelines in the Arava and Nahal Zin regions, respectively.

Every such case of pollution has its own unique circumstances, and in the latest case it’s not yet clear how the leak happened. Nevertheless, neither these mishaps nor other cases of pollution that have occurred should be accepted as something inevitable that occurs from time to time in the course of industrial activity or fuel transport.

Granted, accidents happen at infrastructure facilities throughout the world, including in countries with the best regulation and most advanced technology for preventing such incidents. But Israel is far from either meeting such strict standards or effectively enforcing them.

The history of the Negev’s phosphate plants includes serious pollution of springs in two nature reserves, but over time that pollution ceased. Now it seems there was some problem in the way the acidic waste that leaked over the weekend was handled, a problem that requires both closer monitoring and supervision and more advanced thinking about how to store these fluids and prevent their leaking.

A lesson can be learned from the Neot Hovav industrial park. Over the years the park’s management gradually understood that the industrial waste from its industries endangered the environment, so it adopted safer methods of treating and storing such waste. In the case of Rotem Amfert Negev, an outside examination of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s supervision and treatment policies would seem in order, to prevent a situation in which the ministry investigates itself.

This latest pollution incident ought to compel the state to reexamine the overall environmental impact of the phosphate industries. These plants make products essential to various industries, including growing food, and also provide thousands of jobs. But they exact a very heavy price from the environment. This includes widespread damage to nature in the course of mining the phosphates, as well as the creation of byproducts that have no use and therefore accumulate in the area where the incident occurred.

The state granted Rotem Amfert Negev the right to use the desert’s unique natural resources. Now it is obligated to ensure that industrial needs don’t come at the expense of protecting nature. The state must respond with severity, by fining companies that pollute the environment or overexploit natural resources.

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