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Chemical company’s expert in court case: Southern stream’s radiation not health risk

Addressing claim against Rotem Amfert Negev for waste contamination, toxicologist Shlomo Almog says uranium leaves the body quickly, can be washed off skin with soap and water

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

Yellow water seen in the Zin stream in southern Israel's Negev Desert. (Roi Galili)
Yellow water seen in the Zin stream in southern Israel's Negev Desert. (Roi Galili)

The Ofer family’s ICL Group corporation has submitted a toxicologist’s opinion to be discussed by a Beersheba court on Tuesday in response to a class action suit against the corporation and its subsidiary Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd., over alleged pollution of the Zin and Akrabim streams and springs in southern Israel.

The opinion, written by pharmacologist Dr. Shlomo Almog, of Tel Aviv University’s medical department, denies that the water is dangerous to public health, saying that while immersion can expose people to radioactive uranium, it leaves the body through the urine within a few days and can be washed off the skin with soap and water.

Almog’s statement contradicts claims made earlier in the proceedings by Dr. Orit Skutelsky, coast and water coordinator at Tel Aviv University’s Zoological Department. She told the court that some five kilometers (three miles) of the Zin Stream had become heavily polluted, changing its color from clear to yellow and emitting an acrid stench. Several rare plants had stopped growing because of the contamination, she said.

She based much of her opinion on research by scientists from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, and the Water Authority’s Hydrological Service. That research was published last year in the international journal Environmental Pollution.

The peer-reviewed research directly linked the Zin phosphate plant to the pollution, seen in the “yellowish color (of the water), foam, bad smell, (and) high acidity).” High concentrations of various toxic metals in the spring water not only exceeded permitted levels in drinking water, the scientists said, but suggested that “in addition to the severe groundwater contamination that was caused by the fertilizer plants, this contamination affects living organisms in their natural environments, and poses a health risk for people who come to the springs for recreation.”

Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd. mines and processes phosphorite rock for the fertilizer industry in three locations in the Negev Desert in southern Israel.

Dead palm trees in the Zin valley. Residents blame pollution by a Rotem Amfert Negev Ltd. phosphates plant. (Roi Galili)

The process of converting the rock generates waste known as phosphogypsum, which contains traces of uranium.

In each of Rotem Amfert’s facilities, this phosphogypsum is either stored in evaporation ponds or piled up, dry, on land.

Being highly acidic, it seeps out easily, dissolving the carbon in limestone rock. Other than uranium, it also bears pollutants such as fluoride, sulfate, calcium, phosphate, and trace elements.

That Rotem Amfert holds large amounts of waste on-site is not in question.

In a separate case last month, the company agreed to fund the cleanup of an estimated million cubic meters of phosphogypsum in return for having its franchise extended for another three years. The Environmental Protection Ministry has estimated that it will take 20 years and around NIS 325 million ($103 million) to clean up what accounts for 80% of all industrial waste in the country and to rehabilitate the soil and water polluted by waste seepage.

Phosphogypsum waste at Rotem Amfert in the Negev, southern Israel. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

In his opinion, commissioned by ICL, Almog dismisses the research published in Environmental Pollution, charging that the scientists, experts in hydrology, are not qualified to make judgments about health.

He concurs that the area’s bedrock contains traces of uranium (he says nothing about Rotem Amfert), but denies that the waters of Zin are dangerous to human health, and argues that Skutelsky failed to provide toxicological evidence to prove that they are.

He says that it is irrelevant to quote drinking water standards because people don’t come to the springs to drink, adding that even if they did, the amount of radioactive material does not exceed those standards.

He goes on, “The overwhelming majority of metals and their salts penetrate very little, if at all, through the skin,” although he concedes that penetration can be “significant” if the skin is cut or injured in some way.

לפני מספר חודשים, רועי גלילי, ממגישי התובענה היצוגית נגד כיל ואלכס ליבק הצלם יצאו ליום צילום בעין צין. התמונות מדברות…

Posted by ‎מצילים את הצין‎ on Saturday, June 12, 2021

On the whole, immersion or paddling in the waters exposes a person to “minimum exposure,” he says, although internal exposure to radiation, either by drinking or allowing it to come into contact with open skin, “can potentially cause health damage to the tissue.” The likelihood of this happening through a casual visit is “negligible and does not arouse concern.”

In all events, Almog reassures, “uranium is excreted through the kidneys in urine within a few days.” If it’s on the skin, it can easily be washed off with soap and water.

The application to submit a NIS 3 billion ($960 million) class action suit over pollution of the spring-fed waters of the Zin and Akrabim streams was first brought to the Beersheba court in September 2020 by concerned area residents and the environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din.

Two other attempts to file class action suits against Rotem Amfert for pollution are also ongoing, one in connection with the Bokek stream, the other the Ashalim stream, which has still not recovered from contamination resulting from the collapse of a Rotem Amfert evaporation pool wall in 2017.

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