Global fund agrees to compensate Israel for tar pollution by Syrian oil tanker

London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund will now discuss how much to award, to whom and according to what timetable, Environment Ministry says

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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

The London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund on Thursday approved Israel’s request to receive damages for the massive tar pollution that covered its beaches in February, following an oil leak by a Syrian-owned ship, the Emerald, in the Mediterranean Sea.

The decision was reached unanimously at the fund’s half-yearly executive committee meeting.

The sum has not yet been determined. The next step will be to determine who gets the compensation, how much, and what the timetable will be.

“Israel will be compensated for the tar disaster, according to the principle of ‘the polluter pays,'” said Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg,

She added that the significant damage wreaked on the environment and marine life underscored the ministry’s position that the world should move as quickly as possible to replace fossil fuels such as oil with renewable energy sources.

Marine veterinarians take samples from a 17-meter long fin whale washed ashore on the Nitzanim beach, near the city of Ashkelon, on February 21, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel was taken by surprise on February 18, when tar began washing onto its Mediterranean coastline following stormy weather, along with the corpse of a fin whale some 17 meters (55 feet) long.

Over the following days, it became clear that beaches, from Rosh Hanikra in the far north to Nitzanim in the south, had been contaminated and that wildlife had paid a heavy price.

Evidence from an investigation by the Environmental Protection Ministry at the time indicated that the leak of tens of tons of crude oil took place between February 1 and 2, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) out at sea and came from the Syrian-owned tanker Emerald, which was not insured.

Both Israel and the chairman of the compensation fund agreed that the oil was apparently dumped into the sea on purpose during the cleaning out of oil barrels on board, according to a ministry statement.

Israel was represented at Thursday’s meeting by Rani Amir, who directs the ministry’s National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, and Zvi Shapira of the Shipping and Ports Administration.

States can either sue the insurers of the ships’ owners or, if that is unlikely to bear fruit, appeal to the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund.

A British expert collects tar samples from a beach for detailed analysis as Israel prepares to sue the London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund over a disastrous oil leak in the Mediterranean Sea in February 2021. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

The documentation presented to the fund included tar samples collected from Israel’s beaches, findings from the Environment Ministry probe, marine modeling carried out by Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, a non-profit governmental corporation, and satellite data.

In the wake of the leak, the sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and beaches were closed, with the first 17 reopening only on March 7. Thousands of volunteers rallied over many days to help with the cleanup.

Officials dealing with marine issues said they could not remember an incident with such a wide geographical spread. The long-term damage to ecosystems still remains to be seen.

Israeli soldiers arrive to clean up the contaminated Sharon beach national park, north of Tel Aviv, on February 22, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

In March, then-Environment Minister Gila Gamliel suggested that the incident was an act of “environmental terrorism” orchestrated by Iran.

Her assessment was not shared by security officials, however. An unnamed senior security official told Kan news that Iran did not appear to be directly involved.

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