Two weeks after tons of acidic slurry poured into the Ashalim stream near the Dead Sea, experts are still working around the clock to contain what is emerging as one of Israel’s most devastating environmental disasters.
A collapse in the wall of a holding pool for phosphate — the waste product from making fertilizer — sent some 100,000 cubic meters of acidic water and other pollutants rushing through a popular hiking route on June 30. Environmentalists warn that it will take years before the full extent of the damage is known, and far longer to rehabilitate.
The Nature and Parks Authority and Environmental Protection Ministry are still trying to take stock of the damage, with dozens of people from the NPA working 24 hours a day to clean up the acidic water that now fills the canyon.
On July 3, the Environment Ministry announced it was opening a criminal investigation into Rotem Amfert, the company that runs the evaporation pool where the collapse occurred and its parent company, Israel Chemicals. The ministry also ordered the company to stop using the partially collapsed evaporation pool and instead to use existing temporary ponds until the investigation is completed and changes are implemented.
Rotem Amfert is cooperating with and paying for the cleanup, according to the NPA.
At least eight ibexes and numerous foxes and birds have died in the past two weeks as a consequence of the spill, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry. The seventh and eighth dead ibexes were found on Saturday; only 26 of the species were known to be living in the area of the southern Judean Desert prior to the spill.
“The death of 8 ibexes from this population is a major blow to the ibex population in the area and overall,” said Gilad Gabay, the manager of the southern district of the Nature and Parks Authority.
The rugged topography of the site, with deep and narrow canyons that are only accessible by foot, is severely limiting attempts to remove the acidic waste, meaning wildlife will continue to die from the pollution.
The site will be closed to hikers for at least a year and the cleanup efforts are expected to cost millions of shekels, according to Gabay. “It will take a very long time to rehabilitate this area,” said Gabay. “At least 20 kilometers, including the popular hiking areas, have been polluted.”
Currently the NPA is using giant vacuums to suck up the polluted water.
The Ashalim stream is a popular hiking route, where trekkers wade through pools of deep water amid sheer canyon walls on either side. Usually, at this point in the summer, the last pools are drying up. But on June 30, the water of the spill was churning angrily through the canyon. At its strongest point, the wave of toxic waste burst over Route 90, forcing a brief closure of the road.
Had there been hikers on the route at the time of the spill, the consequences could have been devastating, experts said.
Gabay said the acidic stench of the water was overpowering when it happened and the water was black. Now the smell has dissipated somewhat and the water has taken on a greenish hue.
“It takes a long time to understand the effects of this kind of event, and what kinds of population are in danger. There’s still a lot we don’t know now, but things are starting to become clear,” said Oded Nezer, an ecologist for the southern district with the Environmental Protection Ministry.
“There are over 1,000 bodies of water [temporary puddles created from floods and rain] inside the stream that are basically poisoned,” said Nezer. “Some are inside the canyon so they will stay for a long time, some are in the open parts and they will evaporate much quicker.”
“There are over 1,000 bodies of water [temporary puddles created from floods and rain] inside the stream that are basically poisoned.”
These poisoned pools are the biggest immediate concern, because animals, parched by the summer sun, will drink from them over the coming months, the experts noted. The Environment Ministry is trying to set up temporary troughs with clean water in the area in hopes that the animals will drink from those instead.
It is impossible to fence off the entire area to animals as it would interrupt their migration pattern, explained Professor Eilon Adar of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.
“The major concern is the sediment, the large amount of pollutants which was spread with the water along the Ashalim Wash,” said Adar, an expert in groundwater and hydrology. “It’s not just water [that dumped into the canyon], it’s water and mud from the settling ponds.” This sediment has all sorts of pollutants.
“There were also heavy metals inside this water,” said Nezer. “That is absorbed into the plants and then animals eat the plants and that can do damage to the animals.”
The short-term concerns are the poisoned drinking pools, but the long-term issue is the underground pollution, Nezer added. “The whole basis for the ecology is the ground, and the moment that the ground is polluted it affects everything,” he said. “We’re expecting it will be a really difficult blow to the whole ecological system.”
Although every ecological disaster is unique, experts think the Ashalim stream spill could be more damaging than the Evrona oil spill in 2014, considered one of Israel’s worst environmental catastrophes.
“This is more severe because it’s difficult to remove [the pollutants],” said Adar. “In Evrona, it was a matter of a few weeks and the saturated sand was removed. Here, my impression is that it will not be feasible to remove it. We shall have to rely on natural floods to wash it down and it will take a few years.”
On December 4, 2014, five million liters of oil gushed from a broken pipe and spread across the Evrona Nature Reserve in the southern Arava. Five million liters is the equivalent of two Olympic-sized swimming pools, whereas the material spilled on June 30 is the equivalent of 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The Ashalim spill will likely not endanger Israel’s aquifers of underground water reserves, although “nothing in nature is completely shielded,” Adar noted. The aquifers in this area are located hundreds of meters below ground, under a porous limestone formation that will act as a natural filter. Additionally, the aquifers in this area are brackish water, or salty water, that is not used for drinking. Most of the water in the region from the aquifers goes to the Dead Sea Works or other industrial uses.
Water Authority spokesman Uri Schor said there is “absolutely no worry about drinking water,” though the ministry is carrying out regular checks to track the progress of the pollutants.
Gabay is working with NPA employees to suck up as much of the acidic water as possible from the areas that are accessible to vehicles by putting large pumps on tractors, in an effort to keep it from absorbing into the soil and causing future damage. He estimates it will take at least two months to suck up the available water.
“Right now we’re asking people not to come to the area because it is really dangerous,” he said.
“This acid is so strong that it just burns and kills,” said Nezer. “Animals that weren’t killed in the flood may still have gotten burned.” He said the Environment Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring companies like Rotem Amfert to ensure they comply with environmental safety requirements, is still examining the issue and it is too early to determine if there will be changes in regulation or enforcement.
“We don’t know yet why it happened and why the wall fell [in the holding pool],” he said. “That’s why [the investigation] is so important to us, so we can understand how to stop it in the future.”