Green Police open criminal probe into state-owned pipeline over benzene leak

Environmental Protection Ministry says secretive Europe Asia Pipeline Company allegedly violated several laws, after initial investigation into Ashkelon toxic event

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A fuel tank owned by a Europe Asia Pipeline Company factory just outside of the southern city of Ashkelon, where a fuel leak occurred in late November 2020. (Environmental Protection Ministry)
A fuel tank owned by a Europe Asia Pipeline Company factory just outside of the southern city of Ashkelon, where a fuel leak occurred in late November 2020. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

The Environmental Protection Ministry announced Monday that it had opened a criminal investigation into a fuel leak late last year from a tank owned by the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company Ltd.

The investigation comes as the EAPC is set to significantly expand its activities, amid concerns over the secretive firm’s safety record, six years after it caused what has been called the worst environmental disaster in Israel’s history.

The ministry’s oversight and enforcement arm, called the Green Police, will probe suspicions that the company violated laws on hazard prevention, possession of dangerous substances and company registration, the latter by allegedly breaching its business license, according to an announcement.

In November, dozens of residents living in and around the southern coastal city of Ashkelon complained of foul odors.

The Environmental Protection Ministry discovered that the smell came from a combination of fuel and rainwater on the roof of a container that had leaked on the site of a factory owned by the EAPC close to the city.

View of the port of Ashkelon, June 29, 2005. (Flash90)

Monitoring stations near the site showed significant increases in short-term concentrations of the pollutant benzene, leading the government to urge nearby residents to close their windows and avoid strenuous outdoor activity.

The hazard was only remedied after a day, when the ministry issued an order for the EAPC to take care of it.

A subsequent hearing with company managers led by the ministry’s southern district director, Baruch Weber, revealed that the leak had violated the Prevention of Hazards Law and that in addition, the EAPC was not fully complying with the terms of its business license.

The Environmental Protection Ministry statement said the company also allegedly violated the conditions of a permit on toxins it is allowed to hold. It did not provide details about the allegations.

This picture taken on February 9, 2021, shows an aerial view of the EAPC oil terminal at Israel’s southern Red Sea port city of Eilat.(MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

After an examination, Weber recommended that the Green Police open a criminal investigation, which the ministry approved. Much like the regular police, the Green Police can hand out fines and conduct criminal probes, with the possibility of passing cases to the State Attorney’s Office for prosecution.

In October, the EAPC, which was formerly called the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, signed a memorandum of understanding with MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-UAE venture, to transfer 200,000 barrels of oil and oil-related products between its ports in Ashkelon and Eilat, on the Red Sea, via pipes that connect the two by crossing southern Israel overland.

Environmental organizations, scientists and Eilat residents are campaigning to have the deal stopped, their main fear being that a leak in Eilat could cause irreversible damage to coral reefs nearby.

Youth protest against the expansion of activity at the EAPC oil port in Eilat, southern Israel, on February 10, 2021. The sign reads, ‘Stop the oil agreement now.’ (Egor Iggy Petrenko/Coast Patrol)

In October, the company leaked several cubic meters of light crude oil into the Mediterranean Sea.

Clean up efforts underway at the site of an oil spill some 3 kilometers off Ashkelon’s coast, October 30, 2020. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

That same month, state prosecutors announced that the company and five current and former senior executives could be put on trial, pending a hearing, over their alleged role in Israel’s worst environmental disaster, which caused an estimated NIS 100 million ($31 million) in damages six years before.

In December 2014, a section of the EAPC’s trans-Israel pipeline ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.

Oil spill in Evrona, southern Israel, December 5, 2014 (Noam Weiss, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia commons)

In February 2020, the EAPC and others were convicted in an Eilat court of harming protected nature in the Red Sea after damaging more than 2,600 Red Sea corals.

The EAPC was established in 1968 as a joint Israeli-Iranian venture to carry oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe via a network of overland pipelines from a terminal in Eilat to terminals in Ashkelon and Haifa on the Mediterranean.

It is operated by the Finance Ministry, though the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority supervises the terminals.

Due to the nature of the EAPC as a joint venture with Iran, the company’s operations are extremely secretive and even today, information connected to it can be censored by the Israeli military.

Inspectors monitor the EAPC’s activities from time to time, although lack of transparency makes it hard to know how often or according to what criteria.

Faithful Warrior, an oil tanker filling up at the EAPC terminal in Eilat, in southern Israel, from January 8 to 9. (Mori Hen, of the not-for-profit Desert and Sea Environment, Eilat)

Earlier this month, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel filed a Freedom of Information request for the Finance Ministry to reveal details of the UAE agreement, but was told that “we cannot relay the information because it is not within our authority.”

The EAPC has said that it is “committed to the values of environmental protection and protecting the region in which it operates and it invests a lot of resources in this.

“It is because of the EAPC that the coral reef in the bay has been preserved and has developed over more than 50 years, parallel to the EAPC’s work, and that is thanks to the strictest safety regulations and the company’s commitment to the environment in which it works.

“The company has the most up to date equipment in the field and meets international standards for environmental protection.”

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