The firm responsible for a massive oil spill in Israel’s south last week, termed one of the worst ecological disasters in the country’s history, has been banned from operating the faulty pipeline for the time being, it was announced Sunday.
The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) had maintained the Trans-Israel pipeline, which was damaged during maintenance and is said to have sent some 3 million liters of oil gushing into the southern desert, severely damaging a nature reserve and other areas.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said the company had to stop operating the line, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and the Red seas, until it is issued a new permit, Israel Radio reported.
The line, which facilitates the transport of crude oil between Europe and Asia, burst due to “a technical error,” according to an EAPC spokesperson.
Work on the pipeline was being carried out in tandem with the construction of Eilat’s Timna International Airport, slated to become operational by 2016.
Thus far, 8,500 tons of contaminated soil from the Evrona Nature Reserve, located 20 kilometers north of Eilat, have been removed in an attempt to contain and minimize the impact of the spill.
The polluted soil was transferred to the Nimra Landfill north of the resort city, an official said. The Environmental Protection Ministry added that workers will continue removing soil from the reserve throughout the night.
Citing weather forecasts indicating heavy rainfall across the country later this week, ministry officials also voiced concern over the possibility that the polluted area would be hit by flash floods that would spread the contamination to additional territories in the south and possibly wash the oil into the Gulf of Eilat.
Located at the northern end of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Eilat is home to protected coral reefs, which could suffer major damage should they be contaminated by oil.
Over 80 people were treated for medical problems on both sides of the Israel-Jordan border following the spill, as crude oil flooded the Route 90 highway leading into Eilat. The vast majority of those initially affected were in Jordan.
Eilat residents filed a class action lawsuit against EAPC over the spill for the sum of NIS 380 million ($95.4 million), Israeli news site Walla reported Sunday.
The residents are seeking 200 million shekels ($50.2 million) to help rehabilitate the ecosystem, while a further 180 million shekels ($45.2 million) will go to the people of Eilat, who are suffering from a variety of respiratory problems as a result of the spill, according to the indictment.
In response, the EAPC released a statement claiming that it “regrets the damage done” and will do “everything necessary to restore the status quo.
“EAPC provides a gateway of energy for the State of Israel. We operate hundreds of miles of pipelines and supply many of Israel’s major refineries, making us an inseparable part the country’s economy,” the statement read.
“We have performed reliably and efficiently for decades,” it noted.
Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene Thursday night in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination, which was described as “considerable” by Guy Samet, the director of the southern region in the Environmental Protection Ministry.
“This is one of the largest [environmental] events in the history of the country,” Samet told Channel 10.
“We’re talking about thousands of gallons of crude oil, which will endanger local wildlife and the surrounding nature reserve,” Samet continued, adding that rehabilitation could take years.
The Evrona ecological reserve sits beside the community of Kibbutz Be’er Ora in the sparsely populated Arava desert, which is home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer.
Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.