Following a major oil spill caused by a leak in the Trans-Israel pipeline Thursday night, the Environmental Protection Ministry said Saturday that it has so far removed 6,000 tons of contaminated soil from the southern Avrona nature reserve, in an attempt to contain and minimize the impact of what experts have labeled one of the country’s worst ever ecological disasters.
The polluted soil was transferred to the Nimra Landfill, located north of Eilat, the Walla news site reported. The Environmental Protection Ministry added that workers will continue evacuating soil from the reserve throughout the night.
Citing weather forecasts indicating heavy rainfall across the country later this week, officials at the ministry also voiced concern over the possibility that the polluted area would be hit by flash floods, thus spreading the contamination to additional territories in the south, and possibly washing the oil into the Gulf of Eilat.
The Gulf of Eilat is home to protected coral reefs which could suffer major damage should the oil reach the sea.
Experts have warned that the spill — 3 million liters, or 660,000 gallons, according to one expert — could take months or even years to clean up.
A preliminary investigation suggested that the oil spill was caused after the pipeline, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and Red seas that runs from Eilat to Ashkelon, was struck accidentally during maintenance work at Be’er Ora, 20 kilometers north of Eilat.
Over 80 people were treated for respiratory problems on both sides of the Israel-Jordan border following the spill, as oil flooded the Route 90 highway leading into Eilat. The vast majority of those affected were in Jordan.
Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination, which was described as “considerable” by Guy Samet, the director of the southern region in the Environmental Protection Ministry.
“This is one of the largest [environmental] events in the history of the country,” Samet told Channel 10.
“We’re talking about thousands of gallons of crude oil, which will endanger local wildlife and the surrounding nature reserve,” Samet said, adding that rehabilitation could take years.
Be’er Ora sits in the sparsely populated Arava region besides multiple nature reserves that are home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer.
Avi Lewis and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.