Environmental groups in Israel are warning that a massive oil spill last month is a trailer of what’s to come if government plans for an oil pipeline deal set for the Red Sea port of Eilat materialize. The spill has continued to wash up clumps of tar along over 90 percent of the country’s 195-kilometer Mediterranean coastline, devastating beaches, killing wildlife, and reaching as far up as neighboring Lebanon.
“This is one of the worst ecological disasters we have ever experienced,” Maya Jacobs, CEO of Zalul environmental NGO that is dedicated to the protection of the seas and rivers of Israel, tells NoCamels. “And this is like a promo. This is nothing compared to what could happen to us. We have nature calling us, saying wake up, look what you’re doing.”
The extent of the devastation of the current spill is still unknown as it is likely to take months to cleanup. Early photos of black blobs of oily tar covering sandy beaches and rocks along the coastline, and shocking images of tar-blackened sea turtles, birds, a young whale and fish killed in the ecological disaster, show a glimpse of the damage wreaked by the oil spill that seems to have taken place in early February.
The spill at sea, which seems to have been accidental and not eco-terrorism as first claimed by the Israeli government, only became known when the crude first washed ashore on February 17. According to European Maritime Safety Agency satellite images and local lab tests, the spill took place 50 kilometers (31 miles) offshore, opposite the city of Ashdod.
For the NGOs working to save the sea and keep it healthy, how the spill came to be is less critical than making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“There is no emergency preparedness,” says Jacobs.
NGOs want the government to finally pass a law “that would define what everyone needs to do in case there’s an oil spill,” says Arik Rosenblum, director of Ecoocean, an NGO focused on evidence-based marine conservation for Israel and the region. Rosenblum is referring to the fact that Israel, a sea-hugging nation, lacks a national plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents.
In 2008, there was a cabinet decision to buy needed equipment to be able to respond to oil spills at sea. But the Treasury blocked funding of the decision and the law never came about. Over the years, environmental activists and NGOs have held “demonstrations, potential petitions, lobbying, going to court,” says Rosenblum, “to try to get the situation to be changed, and it didn’t help.”
He says the work of the NGOs is paramount, but the government must act, too.
“Our whole being is to try to protect the sea. And it’s sort of like having to watch our child being in an endangered place. And we can’t help them as much as we’d like to,” says Rosenblum. “We’re proud that our tiny little NGO, which has worked 24/7 for at least 10 days, has been able to do something to reduce the danger of the sea, but it’s not over.”
The current spill has pushed the government into renewed action. On February 23, the cabinet approved a plan to allocate NIS 45 million to treat the pollution of the beaches, remove the waste to disposal sites and try to restore the situation to what it had been previously.
“This was a major ecological disaster in which a thousand tons of petroleum and tar were piled up on our beaches. We must act quickly, before it sinks into the ground, especially in rocky areas and this would be damage that would be with us for many years. Therefore, we are acting quickly and have just approved the plan …this budgetary assistance will help in saving our beaches. We will maintain our beaches and our environment,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
“We will do everything so that we will be able to repair the ecological damage and go back to enjoying Israel’s beautiful beaches, and open the coming bathing season on schedule,” Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said in a statement.
Indeed, many of the beaches that were first closed upon news of the oil spill have since been given a government green light to reopen to the public.
But not all the beaches are unpolluted. Thousands of volunteers are still cleaning up local beaches covered with more than 12,000 tonnes of tar, and the cleanup is expected to last for several more months due to its atrociousness.
“Most of the cleaning has been focused on the sandy areas of the beaches. And now the focus is on the rocky terrain, which needs much more expertise. We’ve trained volunteers and for the next four months, we’ll be working on it,” Rosenblum tells NoCamels.
The new government funding is meant to be divvied up to local authorities and the Nature and Parks Authority, to treat the polluted beaches. Some funds will go to transporting, treating and removing the waste tar from the temporary storage sites on the beaches to designated sites.
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And other funds will be used to carry out surveys and studies to monitor and document the scope and magnitude of the damage, the rehabilitation process and evaluate how to repair the maritime environment.
The cabinet also called to establish a committee to recommend ways to deal with and prevent maritime disaster scenarios, including the necessary budgets and personnel.
The question now is whether this new call to establish a committee, within six months, to deal with and prevent future maritime disaster scenarios is lip service or not.
The NGOs reiterate the government’s parallel plans to turn Israel’s southernmost city into an oil and gas import and export hub.
“This is a catastrophe but it’s not being compared to what we can expect if we don’t act now,” says Jacobs, whose organization campaigns for marine preservation.
The activists warn that it is just a matter of time before a leak occurs at the offshore natural gas fields Tamar and Leviathan or what could happen if the preliminary deal calling for state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Co to transport oil from the United Arab Emirates to Europe via a pipeline that connects the Red Sea city of Eilat, and the port city of Ashkelon goes through.
“Oil spills happen,” says Rosenblum. “There’s a statistical fact that they happen. Even those that do the best they can to prevent it. It’s still a statistical fact. You can’t ignore it. You have to prepare for it. And you have to do the best you can to make sure it doesn’t happen near our coast,” he says.
Jacobs explains that while the world is “moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy solutions, Israel is investing in the wrong direction.” She says that Israel needs to accept that it missed the boat the Age of Oil because of the Arab embargo and now focus on renewable energy resources.
“We cannot contaminate ourselves, it’s against environmental logic and also financial logic. The government is looking to invest billions and billions of our taxpayers’ money in the infrastructure for gas, despite the fact that we see already a shift of trillions of dollars in the world moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy solutions. What are we doing here? Everything is opposite than what we’re supposed to be doing,” she says.
A fossil fuel leak near Eilat could harm the world-renowned coral reefs, endanger tourism and public health.
“This is not only an Israeli problem, this is a regional problem both for the Mediterranean and all the countries around it, and also for the Red Sea. And we’re calling on all nations, all nature lovers, all coral reef lovers, the corals of the Red Sea are not immune to oil,” says Jacobs.
Rosenblum says while the current spill is the country’s worst ecological catastrophe in recent memory, a future one could return us to the Middle Ages.
“We received at least 1,200 tonnes of tar; it has reached 160 kilometers of our 195-kilometer coastline. It is defined by international standards as a Tier 2 oil spill,” Rosenblum, the director of Ecoocean, tells NoCamels.
“A Tier 3 oil spill would [force us to] shut down the desalination plants, meaning we have no drinking water, we’d have to close down the doors of the power stations, so we’d have no power. We will be back in the Middle Ages,” says Rosenblum. “We do hope this is a call to reason and a wake-up call.”
Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond. www.vivaspress.com