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Weeks after tar polluted most of Israeli Mediterranean coast

21 years late, Environment Ministry issues draft bill on oil spill preparedness

Detailed memorandum, which spells out responsibilities of all bodies involved as well as fines for non-compliance, open for public comment until April 28

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Volunteers help to clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea at the Gador nature reserve near Hadera in northern Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Environmental Protection Ministry on Monday published a document setting out the content for a bill aimed at ensuring that the country is properly prepared for oil spills.

The document comes 21 years after the government agreed to pass such legislation, and as scattered cleanup efforts continued following one of the worst-ever leaks to hit Israel’s shores.

The ministry proposal provides for a national plan that will guide all relevant bodies — coastal authorities, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, ports, factories, defense facilities, and oil and gas exploration companies — in the task of drawing up their own local emergency plans for dealing with spills on land and sea.

The plans, to be updated every five years, are to be divided into three sections: readiness, including preparation of emergency plans, acquisition of equipment and training and exercises in emergency response; response to an incident; and clean-up, rehabilitation and removal of waste such as tar, to include earmarking sites for the temporary storage of the waste.

Yossi Habif, who works at Israel Chemicals’ TAMI Institute for R&D in Haifa, helps to clean up from an oil spill at Achziv beach in northern Israel, February 25, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Three tiers of fines for non-compliance with the law will be set according to degrees of severity. They will range from NIS 25,000 to NIS 50,000 ($7,500 to $15,000) for individuals and from NIS 200,000 to NIS 400,000 ($60,000 to $120,000) for corporations.

Jail terms of six months to a year, or fines of NIS 75,000 to NIS 226,000 ($22,500 to $68,000) for individuals, and double that for corporations, are proposed for incidents of criminal liability.

On funding, the document notes that the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Marine Pollution Prevention Fund, established in 1979 to cover all aspects of the marine and coastal environment, will run out of money in a few years as the demands outstrip the supply of cash from sources such as shipping fees and pollution fines.

The fund has NIS 121 million ($36.3 million) on its books, but it has already approved spending NIS 76 million ($22.8 million) to buy dedicated marine equipment and ships and to establish two sea pollution prevention stations in Haifa and Ashkelon.

A separate sum of at least NIS 15 million ($4.5 million) must be set aside, the document continued, to reimburse organizations or companies that undertake oil spill cleanups, in cases where culprits are not identified or cannot be sued and monies cannot be obtained from the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds.

The same sum should be provided annually by the Finance Ministry to ensure the smooth running of the marine pollution unit’s activities and cover the costs of the existing 20 staff posts, the bill says, and additional sums should be provided for another 20 staff positions to cope with the increasing challenges.

These include an increase in oil tankers plying the Eastern Mediterranean, an uptick in oil and gas exploration, and a new agreement signed between the United Arab Emirates and a UAE-Israeli consortium to have Gulf oil channeled overland, from Eilat, on the Red Sea coast, to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean — a deal that brings with it increased dangers of oil spills.

The document (in Hebrew) — which is aimed at bringing the country into compliance with the 1990 Convention on Preparedness, Response and Cooperation against Pollution, which Israel ratified in June 1999, is available for public comment until April 28, after which the ministry will attempt to finalize the proposal and move ahead with passing the legislation.

The move follows a massive marine oil spill that took place between February 1 and 2 but that was only spotted on February 18 when tar began to wash up along Israel’s Mediterranean coastline, polluting beaches and killing wildlife.

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill which drenched most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)`

“The pollution of Israel’s beaches with tar around a month ago underlined the huge importance of completing national preparedness,” Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said in a statement Monday.

She also asked that other ministries not stymie the initiative, a reference to the quashing of a similar effort over a decade ago, when the Finance Ministry refused to fund the program.

“We call on the relevant government ministries not to block the advancement of this important bill this time and to enable Israel to fall into line with international agreements and OECD standards,” she said. “The most important thing now is for the Environmental Protection Ministry to get the budgets and the staff positions so that the bill we pass will be of value and so that we can be ready as a country to respond, in the best way possible, to the next marine pollution incident.”

A cabinet decision made in 2008, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, ordered that within three to five years from January 1, 2009, the ministry would fill staff positions and acquire all the equipment and sailing vessels it needed to prevent oil contaminations at sea, as part of the formulation of a national plan to prepare for and respond to marine oil spills.

Despite cabinet support for the passage of a law, one never moved forward. And the Finance Ministry balked at providing funding to supplement the Environmental Protection Ministry’s coffers in order to see the plan through.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore tar spill caused damage along Israel’s Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On February 21, Gamliel announced that she had obtained the agreement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to submit an immediate proposal for government clean-up funds to advance the same legislation and to create a committee, with officials from the Environment and Finance ministries tasked with recommending budgets and additional staff positions within six months of the date of starting work.

Following discovery of the February spill, some 15,000 volunteers helped coastal authorities, the INPA and the non-profit marine protection organizations EcoOcean and Zalul to clean up sands stretching from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Nitzanim in the south. The sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and beaches were closed, with the first 17 reopening only on March 7.

The ministry has pinpointed as the culprit for the spill the Emerald tanker, a 19-year-old ship owned by a Syrian family, sailing under a Panamanian flag, that was carrying crude oil to Syria, probably from Iran.

According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, under whose jurisdiction some of the polluted beaches fell, the cleanup operation is still continuing.

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