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Environment Ministry opens criminal probe into pipeline company’s oil leak

Europe Asia Pipeline Company staff works through the night to repair 12-meter section of pipe in southern Israel, remove 800 tons of polluted soil

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

Workers repair a section of pipe in southern Israel owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company following a leak of crude oil, August 30, 2021.  (Environmental Protection Ministry)
Workers repair a section of pipe in southern Israel owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company following a leak of crude oil, August 30, 2021. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

The Environmental Protection Ministry has announced a criminal investigation into an oil leak from a pipe belonging to the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company.

The latest leak, picked up by the company’s monitoring equipment, occurred Sunday near Moshav Mash’an, just east of the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, where the EAPC maintains a port.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg on Monday said the incident was “very grave” and illustrated “once again how dangerous and harmful the transport of fossil fuel in the heart of the State of Israel can be.”

She was referring to a controversial deal signed between the company and a consortium of Emirati and Israeli businesspeople to use Israel as a land bridge to get Gulf oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and onward to European markets.

Company staff worked through the night Sunday to replace a 12-meter (40-feet) stretch of the pipe, remove some 100 cubic meters of crude oil and get rid of some 800 tons of polluted soil spread over three dunams (three quarters of an acre).

Workers repair a section of pipe in southern Israel owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company following a leak of crude oil, August 30, 2021. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

In an unusual move for such a relatively small leak, Zandberg visited the site Tuesday morning, accompanied by the ministry’s director-general Galit Cohen and other senior staff.

The EAPC, which developed out of a company set up by Israel and the former shah of Iran in the 1960s, operates with a high level of secrecy out of the Finance Ministry.

It remains unclear which, if any, government ministries, knew about the deal with the Emiratis before it was signed in October of last year. The contents have not been made public.

The company has been responsible for numerous leaks and mishaps over the years, the most serious of which was the leak of a pipe into the Evrona nature reserve in southern Israel in 2014, which caused the country’s greatest environmental disaster.

Former and current environmental protection ministers, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the local coastal authorities, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations and scores of scientists and Eilat residents oppose the UAE agreement. They warn that just one leak could spell catastrophe for the globally important coral reefs off the coast of Eilat in southern Israel, and for the economy of the city and the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg receives an update at the site of an oil leak in southern Israel, August 31, 2021. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

In July, the Environmental Protection Ministry rejected an environmental risk survey it had demanded from the company. The ministry said that, at best, it did not meet instructions given by the ministry and that it more likely reflected “negligence and perhaps even disregard for our instructions.”

Rani Amir, head of the ministry’s Marine Environmental Protection Unit, accused the company of “impertinence” for using the survey as the basis on which to respond to a High Court petition filed by environmental groups against the deal. The company told the court that the the threat of environmental damage was “negligible.”

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