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More tar washing up on beaches; public told again: stay away

Environment Ministry defends response to oil spill: ‘We had no early warning’

Responding to accusation of lagging in both cleanup and investigation, official says ‘no one in the Mediterranean knew about it’; says at least 5 ships suspected

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

The Environmental Protection Ministry on Thursday pushed back against accusations of a tardy response to the oil spill disaster that has seen almost all of Israel’s Mediterranean beaches closed down because of tar pollution.

Reports of the pollution emerged last Thursday when a dead 17-meter baby fin whale washed up on Israel’s southern coast, along with other wildlife.

Asked why it took so long for Israeli authorities to get a grip on what had happened, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director of the National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, Rani Amir, said, “We had no early warning and no one in the Mediterranean knew about it.”

Updating journalists on the investigation, Amir said that “at least five” ships had been identified so far as suspects, and that some of them had been inspected at Israeli ports and others at foreign ports.

Related: Israel’s coast is devastated by an oil spill. If only we’d had an emergency plan

“Since the information [on the location of the spill] was received from the European Maritime Safety Agency and the Agency in Malta, we have cross-examined all the vessels that passed through the area,” Amir said, adding that a number of ships had already been ruled out.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel walk on Ashdod beach on February 21, 2021, after an offshore oil spill caused damage along Israel’s Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, speaking alongside Amir at the briefing for journalists, 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,” Gamliel said.

The government on Sunday advised Israelis to avoid all Mediterranean beaches from north to south due to the pollution. The ministry reiterated the warning Thursday, noting that more tar was still washing up on the coast, while the cleanup is ongoing.

On Wednesday, as the cleanup gathered pace, the Health Ministry ordered a precautionary ban on the sale of fish and other seafood from the Mediterranean.

The INPA estimated that a long period will be needed to clear the tar contamination from the beaches and the rocky areas, including the abrasion platforms that serve as habitats for many marine creatures. These are areas of bedrock that extend out from the foot of coastal cliffs into shallow waters.

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Amir also defended a now-mainly-defunct gag order on the investigation requested by the Environmental Protection ministry.

“The reason for the gag order was a fear of disrupting investigation proceedings. There is nothing else involved,” he said.

On Tuesday morning, the Haifa Magistrate’s Court canceled the seven-day gag order it granted to the ministry on Monday, which banned the media from reporting any details about the spill investigation until February 28.

Following an uproar from environmental groups and a petition by several media organizations to cancel or reduce the reporting limitations, Judge Ziad Fallah scrapped the order and, instead, issued a much-reduced set of instructions. These prohibit the media from publishing anything about the way in which the investigation is being conducted, the bodies involved in it or any details coming out of the investigation itself, until February 28.

He issued a one-day ban on publishing the names of ships other than those already published. But he gave the green light for media outlets to carry out and publish their own investigations, saying that these could help the authorities to do their work.

The Minerva Helen crude oil tanker, seen at the oil terminal of Dunkirk, France. (Remi Jouan, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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