Israel rules out 12 of 35 vessels suspected in oil spill

Environment minister says disaster is a case of ‘malice’ on part of ship owner with ‘no compassion,’ demands government reconsider plan to increase crude shipments via Israel

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A sign that reads, "Danger, polluted sea" is placed on Haifa beach, northern Israel, next to bags full of tar collected by volunteers following an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, February 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A sign that reads, "Danger, polluted sea" is placed on Haifa beach, northern Israel, next to bags full of tar collected by volunteers following an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea, February 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The oil spill that has caused the contamination of almost the entire stretch of Israel’s Mediterranean coast with tar is “without doubt a case of malice,” Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel told a press briefing Monday.

“Either the ship dumped oil into the sea on purpose, or the oil leaked out because of a fault,” she said. Either way, the ship’s owner “lacked compassion toward [marine] wildlife and nature and did not inform the authorities.”

Tar contamination has affected 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the Mediterranean coastline’s 195 kilometers (121 miles), with tar still washing up on many beaches. It has also polluted beaches in Lebanon.

The Environment Ministry believes that a spill identified 44 kilometers (27 miles)  off shore on February 11 was responsible for the disaster. According to the Financial Times, 210 vessels passed within 50 kilometers of the shores of Israel and Lebanon between February 10 and 12.

Gamliel said Monday that the ministry had investigated 35 vessels over recent days, eliminating 12 of them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) 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)

Rani Amir, who directs the ministry’s National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, pushed back against criticism of a lack of advance warning technology such as access to satellite images, saying that most of the contamination would have been inevitable anyway, especially as stormy weather would have prevented sending boats out to surround the slick and treat it at sea.

He added that divers would not be sent to retrieve blocks of tar from the seabed until laboratory results determine exactly what the leaked substance is and whether the waters are safe.

Gamliel also said that plans to increase the flow of oil through the southern port of Eilat looked like a “step in the wrong direction” and called for an urgent discussion by all relevant government bodies.

In October, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Co. (EAPC), formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co., and MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-UAE venture, to use Israel as a land bridge between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean for the transport of Gulf oil to markets in Europe.

Tar on Tel Dor beach, northern Israel, March 1, 2021. (Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The pact allows for up to 120 oil tankers carrying up to 7.9 billion gallons (30 million cubic meters) of crude oil and oil byproducts to use the existing EAPC port in Eilat, on the shore of the Red Sea in southern Israel.

The deal has been widely condemned by a consortium of environmental organizations and more than 200 scientists. Eilat residents are holding regular demonstrations.

Referring to the current oil-related tar contamination, Gamliel warned, “What we have seen this week on the beaches with the severe tar incident is tiny compared with the quantities of oil being spoken about in the case of the EAPC. Emphasis must be placed on the serious potential implications for the environment in the case of a disaster, which could change the face of the region and lead to irreversible damage.”

This picture taken on February 10, 2021 shows a view of marine life at a coral reef in the Red Sea waters off the coast of Israel’s southern port city of Eilat. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

She added, “In global political terms, this is an anti-environmental initiative to increase the flow of crude oil instead of encouraging investment in renewable energy and a low carbon economy.

“As a result, the dangers of an oil spill in the Gulf of Eilat will increase, as they will in Ashkelon, with the emphasis on the sensitive ecological system of the Red Sea.”

She said, “The reduction of fossil fuel use in Israel, toward which the Environmental Protection Ministry is aiming, is a national, strategic aim that is essential for reducing air pollution, disease and mortality arising from their use.”

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)

The EAPC was established in 1968 as a joint Israeli-Iranian venture to carry Asian oil from Eilat to Europe via a network of pipelines that reach from Eilat to Ashkelon and up the length of Israel to Haifa. According to the EAPC website, the company operates 750 kilometers (466 miles) of pipelines in Israel. The firm is operated by the Finance Ministry, though the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority supervises the terminals.

Six years ago, the company set the ignominious record of causing the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history when one of its pipelines ruptured, sending some 1.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel.

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