As tar keeps coming, Environment and Finance ministries spar over funds

Knesset committee chair warns that in a future pollution disaster, ‘we won’t have water to drink and our children won’t be able to bathe in the sea for decades’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A fresh ball of tar on the beach at the Gador Nature Reserve in northern Israel, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
A fresh ball of tar on the beach at the Gador Nature Reserve in northern Israel, March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

As volunteers continue to clean tar from Israel’s Mediterranean coastline following an apparent oil spill at sea just under two weeks ago, nature — it seems — has other plans.

Because the tar just keeps coming.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has color-ranked beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the north down to Nitzanim in the south according to the severity of the contamination. According to a “traffic light map” (in Hebrew) that is updated every day, blue denotes very light pollution, while dark red, the most severe, means medium to heavy tar spill.

On Tuesday, this reporter visited two beaches in northern Israel: Maayan Zvi (dark red on Monday night), west of Zichron Yaakov, and the Gador Nature Reserve, just over a half hour drive to the south, which was yellow (mild).

The sand on both beaches was still flecked with tar balls.

Tar on the beach of Maayan Zvi in northern Israel , March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

At Gador, where soldiers from the army’s special intelligence unit 9900 were volunteering for the day, shiny new chunks of tar lay close to the waterline and previously deposited flotsam were still tucked onto the nooks and crannies of the cliff.

“It’s great to get away from the computer screen and to be out on such a lovely day,” said Samuel. “It’s also great to be able to help,” added Hadar.

They are among 13,000 volunteers who have helped to clean up the beaches under the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s jurisdiction since the disaster struck.

Tar on the beach of Ma’ayan Zvi in northern Israel , March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The Environmental Protection Ministry reported Tuesday that it had already removed some 120 tons of sand, refuse and other material contaminated with tar from the northern coastal beaches of Jisr az-Zarqa, Herzliya and Atlit and from Palmachim in central Israel. It said preparations were underway to pick the waste up from Haifa, Rishon Lezion, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Nahariya and all the INPA beaches.

The waste has been taken to the Neot Hovav industrial site in the Negev, in southern Israel, for sorting and analysis, in the hope that some of it can be composted, with as little as possible sent to landfill, the ministry added.

The 120 tons of waste collected so far is a tenth of the estimated total.

According to local authority estimates, Haifa’s five beaches have accumulated 152 tons of contaminated waste, with 100 tons in Atlit, 40 in northern Nahariya, 12 in Tel Baruch, and ten each on the beaches of Rishon Lezion and Sironit in Netanya.

Out of the NIS 45 million ($13.8 million) approved a week ago by the government for spending on the disaster, NIS 10 million is being allocated for waste removal. NIS 5 million will be spent on research, monitoring and surveys, and the remaining NIS 30 million is being divided between the local authorities which are directly responsible for all beaches except those administered by INPA.

Meanwhile, after initial attempts to hold an emergency Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee meeting last month were stymied by Likud lawmaker and coalition chairman Miki Zohar, a meeting did take place Tuesday, with both committee chairwoman Miki Haimovitch (Blue and White) and Environmental Protection Ministry officials slamming the Finance Ministry.

Asked what would be needed to enable the Environmental Protection Ministry to cope better with a future disaster, Rani Amir, director of the National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, said an early warning system, two coastal stations, each with a staff of ten — one in the north and one in the south — and two ships, at least one of which is equipped to pump oil out of the sea, boats, pumping equipment.

Tar and flotsam collected in patches of sand between the Gador National Park’s cliff. March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

But he claimed that even two ships with pumps would only have been able to remove 15 to 20 percent of the oil if they had reached last month’s spill in time, because of the weather conditions and the rapid pace at which the contaminants were being swept toward the shore.

“In 2008 we asked for ten staff positions and received none,” he said. “In 2014, we received none. In 2016, we were supposed to get 11 and in 2019 we were supposed to get eight. We didn’t get any.”

He added that there was a plan to establish a coastal radar system to help provide early alerts, which would be more reliable than satellite images.

Rotem Bramli of the Finance Ministry’s budget division said that NIS 100 million ($30.3 million) was available in the state’s Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution and claimed that the ministry had allocated 90 positions to the Environment Ministry in 2017 but that the ministry had decided not to allocate any of these to oil spill preparedness and prevention.

“You’re talking nonsense,” retorted Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud). “Look at the figures. The ministry is worryingly short of staff positions.” She claimed that 23 positions had actually been axed.

Tar on the rocks at the Gador Nature Reserve in northern Israel , March 2, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

An official from the Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution added, “There is money in the fund for the prevention of marine pollution, but it’s for buying equipment for a marine event. We can’t buy the equipment, because there is no one to operate it. There are no staff positions, so we hang on to the money.”

Haimovich said, “We will all pay if God forbid there’s a big, crazy pollution event [and] and we won’t have water to drink [because oil contamination would force the country’s desalination plants to stop operating] and our children won’t be able to bathe in the sea for decades. The fund’s budget should not go to staff positions.”

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