Don’t eat fish from Acre Bay, says senior researcher in mercury warning

Nonprofit goes to court to protest what it calls years of failed efforts by state, private sector, to tackle contaminated factory site that poisoned marine life

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Aerial view of the ruins of the now defunct Electrochemical Industries Company near the northern city of Acre. (Hillel Tatro/Channel 13 Screenshot)
Aerial view of the ruins of the now defunct Electrochemical Industries Company near the northern city of Acre. (Hillel Tatro/Channel 13 Screenshot)

State authorities have known for years about worrying levels of mercury in much of the fresh fish that draws locals, visitors and tourists to the seaside restaurants of the former Crusader Old City of Acre, on Israel’s northern Mediterranean coast.

But despite monitoring reports, scientific publications, media coverage and  debates in the Knesset, government ministries and courts, fishing and the sale of local fish continues unabated, without warnings to the public, and the contaminated beachfront former industrial site of the source of the mercury remains accessible to all.

Frustrated by what they see as failed attempts to force the polluters or those who inherited the mess to pay for the cleanup, the environmental organization Zalul, along with two area residents and lawyer Jameela Hardal-Wakim of Citizens for the Environment, asked the Haifa District Court earlier this month to approve a class action suit against the current owners, Delek Yam Ma’agan 2011, and the straw company through which it bought the site nine years ago.

In a Channel 13 documentary program, HaTsinor (The Pipe)  earlier this month, Zalul’s director, Maya Jacobs, called the site “the nearest thing to Chernobyl in Israel.”

Delek Yam is a subsidiary of Delek Group, whose major shareholder is natural gas tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva.

What’s in the fish? Diners at a seafront restaurant in the Old City of Acre, March 21 2009. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

If allowed to build up in the body, high amounts of methyl mercury — a particularly toxic type of mercury that accumulates in living creatures — can harm the nervous system. If ingested by pregnant women, it can affect the development of young children’s brains leading to lower intelligence.

The story begins with the establishment of the Electrochemical Industries (ECI) company, which was active from 1956 until its liquidation in 2004. It produced chlorine and later polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

During its first 20 years, the plant dumped toxic waste out at sea until it was instructed to deal properly with its wastewater, after which mercury levels in fish declined.

Fish sold in the market in the old city of Acre in northern Israel on March 23, 2019. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

But between 2006 and 2014, annual surveys by the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute recorded a trend of rising mercury in certain species of edible fish, to the extent that by 2012, nearly a fifth of all specimens analyzed contained mercury levels exceeding safe consumption guidelines.

For reasons that are still being researched, the levels started going down after 2012, then spiked again in the years 2015 and 2016, before dropping in 2019 to safe consumption levels that were the lowest on record. However, researchers only take one sample per year, and cannot know whether mercury-laden fish just escaped the catch.

In 2015, the Environment Ministry commissioned the IOLR to identify the source of the fish contamination in Haifa Bay. The results, published in 2017, found that mercury in marine creatures was higher in the northern part of the bay than the southern one and traced the pollution to groundwater beneath the old factory, where mercury concentrations were up to 75 times higher than existing guidelines for seawater.  The study also revealed increased mercury levels in sea creatures off of Shavei Tzion, a beachfront moshav some 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) to the north of the plant.

Maya Jacobs, head of the Zalul environmental organization, seen campaigning to protect the sea. (Facebook)

The original factory closed after a massive toxic fire, leaving the polluted ground and groundwater intact. The liquidators passed supervision of the site to the Environment Ministry, which carried out very partial waste removal.

In 2005, a class action suit was submitted against the factory, its American owner John Ferber and the Environment and Industry and Trade ministries on behalf of around 80 factory workers, some of whom had already died, demanding compensation for illnesses such as cancer caused by exposure to toxic substances at the factory.

Three years later, a court approved a NIS 11.9 million payout (then roughly $3.5 million), with the plant’s insurance companies footing 70% of the bill, the state 20%, and the rest shared out among others, including John Ferber, who would pay 5%.

Mercury poisoning had already been documented in the Japanese city of Minamata, which subsequently lent its name to the sickness caused by exposure to mercury-laden industrial wastewater, and to a 2017 international agreement, to which Israel is a signatory.

In 2011, the site was bought by Delek Yam Ma’agan 2011, with the intention of building a storage plant for natural gas — a plan scotched a year later by the Defense Ministry. In the purchase contract, the company took sole responsibility for cleaning up the site.

Aerial view of the polluted land and the remains of the now defunct Electrochemical Industries Company near the northern city of Acre. (Channel 13 Screenshot)

Five years ago, as the IOLR study findings began to emerge, Rani Amir, the senior Environment Ministry official in charge of the marine environment, warned the health, agriculture and interior ministries, as well as the Acre local council, that the polluted beach was freely accessible.

Ruins of the former Electrochemical Industries Company near the northern city of Acre. (Channel 13 Screenshot)

He recommended fencing it off and erecting signs warning that it was dangerous and prohibiting bathing. (A fence has been put up on the road side of the plant, but the site is still accessible from the beach). He also called on the Health Ministry and local council to sample sand and seawater for mercury on Acre’s official bathing beaches. Health Ministry samples subsequently found “continuing and highly worrying mercury pollution” and joined the plea for fishing to stop, but to no avail.

In a professional opinion attached to the court documents, environmental economist and former Environment Ministry chief scientist Sinaia Netanyahu said that the damage to public health and the environment over the course of the factory’s operation amounted to billions of shekels. Today, the annual cost arising just from contamination of the groundwater, beaches and marine ecosystems came to around NIS 260 ($75) million, she wrote.

A statement from Delek Yam Ma’agan, which received notice of the court petition in April, said that the site was bought from the state in a polluted condition after decades of neglect. “As part of the land acquisition, Yam Maagan pledged to clean up the plot and bring it to a sufficient state for the development and advancement of a process that it is leading with an investment of millions of shekels.”

Jack Silverman, senior researcher at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, Haifa. (Courtesy)

Sources connected to the company told the The Times of Israel that Delek Yam had already invested tens of millions of shekels cleaning up pollutants and doing surveys and that it would provide a full report on the treatment and rehabilitation of the site to the authorities during the first quarter of and next year.

Asked about fish consumption in Acre restaurants, Jack Silverman, a senior researcher at the IOLR, said, “If you ask the proprietor where the fish is from and it’s from the Acre Bay, I would advise you to avoid ordering it.”

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