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Environment Ministry declares oil spill emergency over

82% of beaches reopened to public; cleanup operation to continue

Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill that polluted most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Soldiers clean tar off the Palmachim beach following an offshore oil spill that polluted most of the Israeli coastline, February 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One month after Israel’s coastline was devastated by tar from an oil spill at sea, the Environmental Protection Ministry on Wednesday declared the emergency over, though the cleanup operation is still ongoing.

The disaster, labeled “Tar in the Storm,” was classified as a Tier 2 pollution event. It saw an estimated 1,000 tons of tar washed onto Israel’s Mediterranean coastline last month; Channel 12 news reported that 600 tons have been cleared away to date. The Nature and Parks Authority has called the incident one of Israel’s worst environmental disasters.

“After a particularly intense month, we are moving to the next stage, and continuing to supervise the coastal authorities in further cleaning and removal of tar, to achieve a complete cleanup of the beaches,” Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said in a statement.

“We thank the ministry, local authorities, volunteers and environmental organizations. With their help, the incident was dealt with quickly and efficiently,” she added.

Workers clean up chunks of tar that washed up on Dado Beach in Haifa, March 12, 2021. (Fred Arzoine/Environmental Protection Ministry)

Out of 101 official Israeli beaches, 83 have passed the coastal tar index in recent weeks, with 82% of beaches reopening for public use. Of the total, 61% have been determined clean or with slight levels of pollution; 36% were found to have light to moderate levels of pollution; and 3%, almost all of them rocky beaches, are still significantly polluted.

In recent weeks, the Environmental Services Company, under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Ministry, cleared more than 650 tons of mixed tar, which accounts for 83% of the waste that landed on Israeli shores.

From Wednesday, the cleaning operation will be taken over by coastal authorities, with the Environmental Protection Ministry setting up a team to supervise them, as well as conduct diving surveys to locate lumps of tar, according to the ministry press release.

At the same time, the ministry will continue to advance a claim at the International Oil Compensation Fund seeking compensation for the environmental damage wrought by the spill, it said.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel at a press conference regarding an oil spill on Israel’s beaches, at the Ministry of Environmental Protection offices in Jerusalem on March 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamliel has come under fire since news of the oil spill broke, accused of being too slow in both cleaning up and investigating the disaster. Responding to the criticism, Gamliel pinned delays on the international nature of both the incident and the investigation.

“It should be understood that this is a complex investigation, most of which is outside the territorial waters of the State of Israel, so we are cooperating with international bodies to find the persons responsible for the damage,” she said last month.

Gamliel later claimed the oil spill was an intentional attack by Iran, but provided no evidence for her claim. The allegation was immediately disputed by senior security officials, with Channel 13 news reporting that Israel’s defense establishment “does not share this assessment.”

Chunks of tar are seen on Dado Beach in Haifa on March 12, 2021. (Fred Arzoine/Environmental Protection Ministry)

Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that since 2019, Israel has targeted at least 12 ships bound for Syria, most of them transporting Iranian oil, with mines and other weapons. The attacks did not sink the tankers, but forced at least two of the vessels to return to port in Iran.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Ministry identified the Emerald as the ship it believed was responsible for the oil spill. Its investigation determined the ship was smuggling oil from Iran to Syria when the spill occurred in early February.

The Emerald is owned via a complex structure by the Malah family of Syria, according to information given by a private intelligence firm to Environmental Protection Ministry.

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