Race Against Time to Keep Oil Spill From Reaching Eilat

Cleanup teams working to minimize damage after crude oil gushed into the Evrona nature reserve, one of Israel's worst-ever environmental disasters.

Environmental Protection Ministry

Israel is in a race against time to clean up Thurday’s oil spill in the Arava desert before it reaches the Gulf of Eilat, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

A breached pipeline caused millions of liters of crude oil to gush out into the Evrona nature reserve, 20 kilometers north of Eilat, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in Israel’s history. Oil slicks quickly spread over several kilometers and the main road to Eilat was closed intermittently.

Guy Samet, from the Ministry’s southern district, said Friday that “we are in a race against time in an attempt to extract most of the oil out of the Evrona Nature Reserve before it reaches the Gulf.”

In a meeting on Friday it was stated that rains could cause flooding which would disperse the oil across larger areas, further damaging flora and fauna in the area. The floods could also sweep some of the oil as far as the Gulf of Eilat.

“Our concern is that a serious flood going through the reserve would sweep up pollutants and oil that has not been pumped away yet. This has grave ecological implications, including damage to coral reefs in the Gulf. Currently, efforts are being made to remove as much oil and soil as possible to other locations,” added Samet.

Oil spill at Evrona Nature Reserve. Photo by Environmental Protection Ministry

The Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority are to step up the pace of cleaning up the soil in the Evrona Nature Reserve that was contaminated in last week’s major oil spill in the region. The hope is to prevent the floods that are being forecast for the region later this week from spreading the damage to additional areas and possibly as far as the Gulf of Eilat.

The pipeline that burst links Eilat to the port city of Ashkelon. The Environmental Protection Ministry instructed the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company that is in charge of the pipeline to add to the equipment engaged in pumping away the spilled oil. Experts have not yet determined, however, how much of the soil should be removed from the affected area, in light of the inevitable damage that would be caused by the earth-moving equipment. That issue was made more complex by the surprising discovery during the cleanup operations of a similar incident in the nature reserve in 1975 that left some of the soil contaminated but apparently did not cause long-term ecological damage.

Pumping out crude, removing contaminated soil 

Over the weekend employees of the pipeline company finished pumping out the largest deposits of crude oil and on Saturday they began removing contaminated soil from a number of locations in Evrona. As of Saturday evening, 6,000 tons of soil had been removed to a purpose-built site near Eilat. “Today we will continue the cleanup with a number of teams,” the Eilat area director of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Doron Nissim, said on Saturday, adding that inspectors from the agency would be monitoring the work closely in order to prevent additional damage to the nature reserve.

A number of small animals showing signs of damage from the spill were found in affected areas of Evrona, including a number of geckos from the species Stenodactylus doriae, known as the Middle Eastern short-fingered gecko or Doria’s comb-fingered gecko, which is an endangered species. No instances of damage to larger animals, such as gazelles, have been seen. Gazelles and birds living in the reserve seem to be avoiding the pools of oil.

The extent of the damage to the acacia trees in the reserve, which play an important role in the food chain of the animals in Evrona, has not yet been determined. Such damage could pose a significant threat to the future of some of the animal species at the site.

One of the tasks that nature authority employees are expected to face will be keeping curious sightseers from interfering with the cleanup or further damaging the surface with their vehicles. The agency has called in reinforcements from other regions of the country to help in the cleanup effort.

Experts have not yet determined exactly how the oil spill occurred, although it is thought to be the result of a technical malfunction in one of the pipeline’s connectors.

Air quality measurements were conducted on Friday, with the help of the Industrial Council of Neot Hovav. No risks to residents of Eilat or Beer Ora, closer to the spill, were identified. However, high levels of toxic benzene were found along a cycling route that was part of a planned Eilat triathlon event, close to Highway 90.

Oil spill at Evrona Nature Reserve. Photo by Environmental Protection Ministry