Reporter's notebook

At Dead Sea museum, chemical firm evokes past pioneers as it bids to keep mining

With movies and virtual reality, guided tour through reconstructed huts combines Zionist history with ICL’s push for renewal of mineral extraction license

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

Young visitors enjoy clambering over an old engine at ICL's new Moshe Novomieski Visitors and Heritage Center at Sdom, southern Dead Sea, on January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Young visitors enjoy clambering over an old engine at ICL's new Moshe Novomieski Visitors and Heritage Center at Sdom, southern Dead Sea, on January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It’s a long drive from almost anywhere to Sodom near the southernmost tip of the Dead Sea to see the new visitors center opened in December by ICL (formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd).

Located beneath the towering rocks of Mount Sodom, it tells the remarkable story of Israel’s potash extraction industry, started by Moshe Novomieski, Moshe Langotsky, kibbutz leader Yehuda Kopelevich (Almog), and others in the first half of the last century under almost inhuman conditions in one of the harshest places on earth.

The NIS 50 million ($16 million) Moshe Novomieski Visitors and Heritage Center is located where the first workers camp was. Some of the original buildings can still be seen.

It is the realization of a dream for Yossi Langotsky, Moshe Langotsky’s son, now 87, who has pushed for years for the establishment of an institution that will immortalize the contribution of those early pioneers.

The junior Langotsky, a retired IDF colonel and two-time recipient of the Defense Ministry’s Israel Defense Prize, is the geologist who discovered the Tamar natural gas field in 2009, paving the way for others to find additional massive fields in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The first potash factory was built at the northern end of the Dead Sea in 1930. The industry expanded southward to Sodom in 1934, going on to become the biggest industrial enterprise in pre-state Israel and producing, at its height, more than 50 percent of Mandatory Palestine’s exports.

Yossi Langotsky. (Screenshot)

The new center comprises several wooden buildings, in the style of those that would have housed the early laborers, among them many kibbutz members.

It offers guided tours, bookable online (in Hebrew), which last just over an hour and a half, focusing on the geological processes that created the Dead Sea (the formation of the Syrian African rift valley), the founding of the Eretz-Israeli Potash Company in pre-state Israel, and ICL’s current activities.

This reporter recently joined a group of people on a tour of the center.

On display are almost no boards of text, and just a few of the original items, including an engine that the younger members of the group were happy to climb on.

Instead, films and actors — some of them well-known in Israel — are the main vehicles for telling the story, along with a virtual reality tour of the camp in its early days and a quiz, the answers to which are conveyed by pressing numbers on a remote control.

The entrance to the new Moshe Novomieski Visitors and Heritage Center at Sodom, southern Dead Sea, on January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The movies featuring the two early Moshes — with Moshe Novomieski invariably attired in a pith helmet, suit, and tie — positively drip with the sweat, sacrifice, and pioneering spirit of those who lived and worked in the searing temperatures without shade, air conditioning or modern luxuries of any kind. The tents in which some had to sleep were so suffocatingly hot that their occupants would escape to the caves of Mount Sodom for relief, visitors are told.

The Zionist narrative of building the nation then seamlessly carries over into movies that follow the operations of ICL, the Ofer family company that took over the concession to mine the Dead Sea for potash, bromine, and magnesium when the plant was privatized at the turn of this millennium.

Not that Idan Ofer, the main shareholder of both ICL and its parent, the Israel Group, has much in common with those sweaty characters of the early years. The son of a shipping magnate, he was parachuted into the chairmanship of the massive Israel Group at a fairly young age. Some years ago, he left Israel for London, reportedly to reduce his tax bill.

A portrait of the late Sammy Ofer with his son, Idan Ofer. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Most visitors will probably be unaware that ICL’s franchise for the Dead Sea ends in 2030 and that the company is eager to continue mining under a new one.

That is the context for much of the messaging that comes out so strongly in the final film.

The Dead Sea has lost half of its size since 1976, mainly because water from the Sea of Galilee is diverted for human use by Syria, Jordan, and Israel and no longer replenishes the Jordan River, which ultimately ends at the Dead Sea.

When it did still flow, it restocked the hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water that the saline sea loses to evaporation each year.

ICL’s Dead Sea Works also contributes significantly to the dwindling of the sea. By pumping water from the deeper, northern part of the Dead Sea into vast evaporation pools at the southern end, it is responsible for around 25 centimeters (ten inches) of the 1.10 meters (3.6 feet) lost each year — nearly a quarter.

A manmade channel carries water pumped from the northern Dead Sea to evaporation pools at the southern end, January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The movie’s chief narrator, playing Novomieski’s great-grandson, takes visitors through all the good reasons the world needs the Dead Sea’s minerals — potash to provide the fertilizers that will enable the production of food to a growing global population in the grip of climate change; magnesium, the lightest structural metal on the planet, which can be found in everything from TVs and smartphones to racing cars; and bromine compounds, used in most facets of our lives, including technology.

Then, the “great-grandson” — now accompanied by uplifting background music — tells us not only how essential to the world ICL’s work is, but how important it is to the economic resilience of the Negev (where the ICL is a major employer) and how sustainable it is, “balancing the needs of industry, society, and the environment.” After all, Dead Sea Works returns “more than two-thirds” of the water it pumps to the Dead Sea after removing the minerals (but what about the other 30%?).

A view of the Dead Sea Works on February 2, 2018. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

The evaporation pools have “saved tourism” in the southern part of the Dead Sea, which would otherwise have dried out (the “sea” off of the Bokek hotels is one huge evaporation pool), we were told. Indeed, these pools comprise the  “biggest solar factory in the world.”

And finally, we learn, the sinkholes around the Dead Sea would happen “even if we didn’t pump a single centimeter,” and anyway, the movie claims, “in the future, the sea will stabilize naturally.”

What the movie doesn’t mention is that ICL is what Knesset lawmaker Alon Tal has called a “serial offender” in trying to avoid paying its dues to the government.

For years, it dragged its feet over royalties (losing in the end). It also tried to stymie a law on the taxation of natural resources. That law, which mandated payments into a sovereign wealth fund, passed in 2014, but ICL still hasn’t transferred any cash. Then, just a few months ago, it managed to convince the Water Authority and the Justice Ministry that unlike all other industries in Israel, it shouldn’t be billed separately for the water it uses.

The Environmental Protection Ministry would take issue with the squeaky green image the movie tries to portray, pointing out harmful emissions and extensive damage to the ground that has taken place within the franchise area.

The Dead Sea Works factory at the southern end of the Dead Sea. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Furthermore, ICL may have helped to “save” the southern part of the Dead Sea by creating evaporation pools, but it cannot escape part of the blame for the fact that this southern section was in danger of drying out in the first place.

The narrator explains how ICL also protects the Bokek hotels from rising water levels in the big evaporation pool by employing a massive dredger to scrape accumulated salt off the pool’s bottom.

But it took a years-long arbitration process before ICL would agree to shoulder the cost of the salt scraping, and even after agreement with the government, it found a way to delay implementation.

That the sea will eventually stabilize “naturally” is taking things a little too far. There is nothing natural about the Dead Sea’s shriveling — it is totally manmade.

But it will eventually reach an equilibrium of sorts.

As Prof. Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel, explained to The Times of Israel, if the sea, currently covering just over 600 square kilometers (224 square miles), and located 436 meters (1,430 feet) below sea level, drops another 100 meters (330 feet) or so in the coming centuries, the concentration of salt will be so high that evaporation will reduce to a rate that offsets the freshwater still coming in.

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