ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 293

  • Salt formations on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, with the abandoned P88 pumping station in the background, and Masada on the horizon, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Salt formations on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, with the abandoned P88 pumping station in the background, and Masada on the horizon, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • Salt formations on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    Salt formations on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • P88, a former pumping station owned by Dead Sea Works which was abandoned when the Dead Sea retreated, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
    P88, a former pumping station owned by Dead Sea Works which was abandoned when the Dead Sea retreated, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
  • An aerial view of Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea, November 25, 2007. Masada is a site of ancient palaces and fortifications on top of an isolated rock plateau in southern Israel. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
    An aerial view of Masada, which overlooks the Dead Sea, November 25, 2007. Masada is a site of ancient palaces and fortifications on top of an isolated rock plateau in southern Israel. (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
  • A salt delta at the Dead Sea created as part of a chemical reaction when the sea's saline waters meet wastewater from factories that extract minerals.(Nadav Lensky, Geological Survey of Israe;)
    A salt delta at the Dead Sea created as part of a chemical reaction when the sea's saline waters meet wastewater from factories that extract minerals.(Nadav Lensky, Geological Survey of Israe;)
Enivronmental battle at lowest point on Earth

Geologists press Dead Sea Works to prevent creation of salt mountain ‘as tall as Masada’

Company said examining alternatives for disposal of mineral extraction byproduct as state’s Geological Survey pins hopes on developing beauty spot for new tourism plan

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The Dead Sea’s Tzeelim Bay seems to belong to another planet.

From what looks like salt embroidery to snow-like salt strips to pillars that emerge from the hypersaline waters, Tzeelim Bay puts on an otherworldly show of treasures exposed by the Dead Sea’s decline.

But the bay, which forms part of the Dead Sea Works franchise and is not open to the public, is now in danger.

One enters via P88, a vast, abandoned hulk of rusting iron — a perfect prop for a dystopian movie about the end of the universe. P88 once served as a pumping station for the Dead Sea Works mineral extraction company until the shoreline receded and left it isolated on land. A new station, P9, was subsequently constructed closer to the water.

Beyond is the bay, its harsh, crackle-under-foot shoreline providing an open-air exhibition of salt formations.

Unless an alternative is approved, the bay will be used to dump tons of salt being scraped off the bottom of the factory’s largest mineral evaporation pool.

Last month, Prof. Zohar Gvirtzman, head of the state’s Israel Geological Survey,  told a conference at the Dead Sea that piling salt at Tzeelim Bay would create a salt mountain in six years that would be not only visible from Masada — an ancient mountaintop fortification of great symbolic importance to Jews — but would be as tall.

“We want to save P88 and the bay,” he said.

Salt formations on the southern coast of the Dead Sea, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Protecting the Dead Sea hotels

Like its Jordanian counterpart on the eastern shore, Dead Sea Works pumps water uphill from the sea into vast ponds. The water evaporates in the sun, leaving mineral-rich brine from which bromine, phosphate, magnesium, and potash are extracted. The byproduct, halite (table salt), sinks to the bottom.

As accumulated salt in the biggest pond raised the water to a level that potentially endangered the Ein Bokek hotels, the government decided in 2012 that Dead Sea Works should keep the water at a certain level by scraping the salt off the bottom of the pond.

The government further ordered the factory, owned by chemical manufacturing company ICL, to come up with a plan to dump the harvested salt back into the sea.

A salt dredger at Dead Sea Works. (Dror Sithakol)

The scraping began in 2020. The salt — 16 million cubic meters per year, weighing 20 tons, according to the company — is being piled up around the pond until a solution for getting it back to the sea is approved.

To date, the plan under discussion has envisioned building a large conveyor belt from the pond to Tzeelim Bay via a land bridge known as the Lisan Peninsula.

The salt would be dumped at the bay until a longer-term solution could be found for transporting it to the sea.

Prof. Zohar Gvirtzman of the Geological Survey of Israel during an interview with Kan on February 8, 2023. (Screenshot used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Options discussed for dumping at sea have included a pipeline from the shore and barges that would leave from a port to be built at Tzeelim Bay.

The Geological Survey of Israel, however, wants Tzeelim Bay and P88 to form the southern starting point for a series of hiking trails along the length of the Dead Sea, the lowest body of water on Earth, complemented by kayak tours.

The Dead Sea’s battered tourism industry

The Dead Sea has been shrinking for decades due to the diversion of streams for human needs by Syria, Jordan, and Israel, and to the pumping of water from the Dead Sea by the Israeli and Jordanian factories.

The map shows the Sea of Galilee at the top, the line of the Jordan River, the deeper, northern section of the Dead Sea, the tongue-shaped Lisan Peninsula, and, at the bottom, the evaporation pools. (Google Maps)

By the late 1970s, the sea had lost so much water that it split into two.  A tract of land that had previously been underwater became exposed. This is the Lisan Peninsula, from the Arabic word for tongue.

As it recedes, the lake has left behind a barren landscape atop a layer of salt rock. Freshwater from winter rains comes down the mountains and onto the now exposed sea floor, dissolving the subterranean salt rock and causing the land above to fall in.

Due to this phenomenon, there are over 7,000 sinkholes along the Israeli coast alone, exposing those who walk along them to potential mortal danger.

The decline of the Dead Sea has severely impacted the area’s tourism. The only accessible beaches on the “real” Dead Sea are in the far north.

Proposals have come and gone to top up the Dead Sea, either totally or partially.

The most recent plan, unveiled at the same Dead Sea conference in May by the Environmental Protection Ministry, would see water being drawn from the Mediterranean at Haifa Bay in northern Israel and channeled through the Jezreel Valley to a desalination plant near the Sheikh Hussein bridge. From there, the desalinated water would be sent to Jordan (assuming the Jordanians would pay for it), and the byproduct brine would be directed to the Dead Sea to slow, though not halt, the drying up.

Gvirtzman and colleagues believe that regardless of any policy decisions on filling the Dead Sea, the unique geological formations exposed by the shoreline’s decline should be made safely accessible to the public as soon as possible.

But protecting P88 and Tzeelim Bay for tourism will depend on the Dead Sea Works accepting an alternative plan.

White salt has formed along the coast of the Dead Sea during the past 20 years — one of many phenomena occurring as a result of the shoreline’s retreat, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

An alternative site for the salt

Once the Israeli and Jordanian factories have extracted the minerals from the brine, the remaining effluent returns from the ponds down to the sea by gravity via a channel that earned the sobriquet “the secret river” after a TV program about it.

The effluent has carved a channel through the Lisan Peninsula, which is quickly becoming a canyon.

The ‘secret river’ by the Dead Sea, ‘discovered’ by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)

Chemical reactions that occur when the effluent meets the Dead Sea have formed a salty delta that looks natural to the untrained eye.

Gvirtzman has suggested that transporting the salt to this point and possibly pushing it into the sea with bulldozers (cheaper than building a port and loading salt onto barges) would cause the delta to expand but would look natural both from Masada and the Dead Sea shore.

A salt delta at the Dead Sea is being created as part of a chemical reaction when the sea’s saline waters meet wastewater from factories that extract minerals. (Nadav Lensky, Geological Survey of Israel;)

Informed sources confirmed that Dead Sea Works is considering moving the conveyance route to the delta, which is lower than the bay, and using bulldozers rather than boats to return the salt to the sea.

The company is also examining using the “secret river” to transport some of the salt from the pond directly to the sea, although initial indications suggest this would only be able to carry around 10% of the salt, the sources added.

Make unique geology accessible now

Nadav Lensky, Director of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Israel Geological Survey. (Courtesy)

Prof. Nadav Lensky, a senior researcher at the Geological Survey, a Dead Sea expert, and co-author of a plan published in 2021 to develop tourism along the sea’s coast held just beneath Masada, told the confab that tourists were visiting the sinkholes anyway, despite numerous signs prohibiting them from doing so, and were parking dangerously on Route 90.

The 2021 paper said that the geological and morphological phenomena exposed by the Dead Sea’s decline had turned the lake into a “field laboratory” of global importance.

Lensky told The Times of Israel that it was time the state decided on the Dead Sea’s future, given that the sinkholes would continue opening for centuries.

He said that with a fast-growing population in Israel and the region, water would always be in demand.

Part of the abandoned P88 pumping station at the Dead Sea, May 28, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Those pushing to refill the Dead Sea needed to weigh the advantages to the tourism industry against the costs to the landscape and environment of constructing additional (currently fossil fuel-driven) desalination facilities to provide that water.

Ohad Karni, responsible for strategy and policy development at the Environmental Protection Ministry, said, “The Environmental Protection Ministry favors any option that can reduce the visual and environmental impact on the Lisan Peninsula, and especially in and around the Tzeelim Bay, with its unique natural formations.”

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