A week after almost the entire Israeli Mediterranean coastline was devastated by tar from an oil spill at sea, the Environmental Protection Ministry on Wednesday finally began a full-scale clean-up operation.
Experts have found themselves at a loss for words when trying to convey the scope of the disaster. The authorities have been forced to order the public away from all beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south. As a precautionary measure, the Health Ministry on Wednesday evening indefinitely banned the sale of fish and seafood from the Mediterranean.
“We make such loving, hardworking efforts to protect every site, every creature,” said Ruti Yahel, an ecologist with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, “and then this comes along and overturns everything… It’s heartbreaking.”
“We’re going to have to go rock by rock, beach by beach, for the coming years” to undo the damage, said the INPA’s director, Shaul Goldstein. “It’s a Sisyphean task.”
Yahel and Goldstein were speaking in an Israel Television report (Hebrew, below) on Sunday night that also briefly focused on efforts to save 14 young turtles covered in tar. Eight did not survive.
Yoav Ratner, who runs the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Center for Preparedness and Response to Sea Contamination, told The Times of Israel’s environment reporter Sue Surkes earlier this week that the catastrophe was simply unprecedented.
Having spent much of his life involved in environmental affairs, he said it was the worst he could recall ever hitting Israel’s coastal sands and rocks because of its wide geographical spread.
???? סיור בוקר בחופי אכזיב וראש הנקרה, של רני עמיר, מנהל היחידה הארצית להגנת הסביבה הימית של המשרד להגנת הסביבה.
ממשיכים במאמץ הלאומי לנקות את הים והחופים.
אנחנו ועמותת אקואושן מדריכים את המתנדבים ומספקים ציוד מתאים. להרשמה לניקיונות: https://t.co/sgtWtYMWJq pic.twitter.com/3DODGybtIJ
— המשרד להגנת הסביבה – Environmental Protection (@SvivaMinistry) February 23, 2021
Ad hoc cleanup efforts last week had to be abandoned because some volunteers became unwell after inhaling fumes from the clumps of tar.
The damage to marine life is incalculable.
Nobody knows when it will be safe to reopen the beaches.
For now, the ministry is inviting us to keep track of the cleanup with a (Hebrew) color-coded map of the coastline — green for “very light” tar pollution, red for still requiring considerable work.
הכירו את "רמזור החופים" של הים התיכון!
"רמזור החופים" הוא שילוב של מצב הזיהום בשטח והתקדמות פעולות הניקיון. חשוב לציין, שמצב ניקיון החופים משתנה וכי חופים שהיו נקיים היום, לא בהכרח יישארו כך מחר.
לרמזור החופים ארבע רמות >> pic.twitter.com/tYZS7M47dU
— המשרד להגנת הסביבה – Environmental Protection (@SvivaMinistry) February 24, 2021
Five of the 10 oil tankers that were in the area to which the spill has been traced — some 50 kilometers offshore — are still under suspicion. “We’re doing everything to find those responsible and bring them to justice,” said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Thursday morning.
Putting a first official figure on the task ahead, the ministry said Wednesday it would be collecting and disposing of 1,200 tons of tar and contaminated material — including “sand and solid waste such as plastic, wood, algae and shells” — from beaches along 160 kilometers (100 miles) of Israel’s 195-kilometer Mediterranean coastline.
The INPA said later Wednesday that 70 tons had been scraped off and collected from beaches, nature reserves and national parks so far, while its director, Goldstein, warned that more tar may be heading Israel’s way. Some 2,000 volunteers are working with the authorities; the IDF has also provided personnel.
“What humans destroy, humans can also fix,” Dafna Ben-Nun, who took the pictures below, was quoted saying in the tweet. Well, maybe. Hopefully.
"את מה שהאדם הרס, האדם יכול גם לתקן" כותבת דפנה בן נון, שגם צילמה את התמונות היפות.
עם ישראל- אתם הכי טובים שיש. חיילים וחיילות, משפחות, קבוצות, מקרוב ומרחוק. אנחנו נרגשים ומודים לכם מעומק הלב.
להתנדבות: https://t.co/FsIBtufnvq@SvivaMinistry @Ecoocean pic.twitter.com/vUiRp97FDM
— רשות הטבע והגנים (@rashut_hateva) February 24, 2021
Giving a sense of the scale and complexity of the cleanup, the INPA said the worst of the pollution remains “on the rocky surfaces on the beaches,” where it is difficult to remove. The sandy surfaces are relatively clean, although there too there are considerable quantities of lumps and flakes of tar.
The cleanup involves “filtering large areas of sand” — work that requires large teams, it said. “The authority is trying to find effective mechanical and technological measures to grapple with the small lumps of tar, and more advanced measures to tackle the tar on rocky surfaces,” it added.
A catastrophe Israel saw coming years ago
In an article we published on Monday, reporter Surkes describes how a series of measures drawn up years ago that would have given Israel earlier warning of the catastrophe heading our way — the spill has been dated to February 11 — and better tools to minimize the devastating impact were never implemented.
“Way back in 2008,” she writes, “the government decided to formulate a National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents. A cabinet decision, made in June 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, ordered that within three to five years from January 1, 2009, the ministry would fill staff positions and acquire all the equipment and sailing vessels it needed to prevent oil contaminations at sea.”
The Environmental Protection Ministry “was instructed to discuss with the Treasury any funding needs it could not meet on its own, in the run-up to the 2009 budget. And the environmental protection minister at the time was ordered to ensure that the plan was enshrined in law, along with the requirements of the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, to which Israel is a signatory.
“But the plan never made it into the law books. And the Finance Ministry effectively blocked the transfer of additional funds.”
All this is evidence, with now tragic consequences, of the low priority afforded environmental protection by successive governments.
It ought to be beyond obvious that Israel’s Mediterranean coastline is a glorious national asset to be protected at all cost — our own western horizon and our face to the world; the core of our domestic and international tourism industry; a precious, delicate ecological resource
Hammering home the unconscionably shortsighted indifference and neglect, even the budget for the official cleanup now underway was initially held up by bickering ministers and bureaucrats.
It ought to be beyond obvious that Israel’s Mediterranean coastline is a glorious national asset to be protected at all cost — our own western horizon and our face to the world; the core of our domestic and international tourism industry; a precious, delicate ecological resource.
Evidently, abysmally, this hasn’t been obvious at all to the politicians and officials responsible for keeping the coastline safe.
The next disaster
Extraordinarily, even as Israel belatedly seeks to battle one maritime disaster, with no telling when the damage will be alleviated, it appears to be risking irreversible catastrophe at another of our most precious waterfront jewels, the Red Sea resort city of Eilat.
There, plans are rapidly advancing for a project in which tankers from the United Arab Emirates will unload at Eilat port into a pipeline conveying crude oil across the country to Ashkelon, and thence on to Europe.
Activists have been warning for months that the plan is a calamity waiting to happen, the more so because, they say, the expected two-to-three tankers a week are slated to do their unloading just a few hundred meters from Eilat’s world-renowned coral reefs.
The ‘next ecological disaster’ is now all too obviously here, blackly congealed along our Mediterranean coast
In a report we ran on February 15, Nadav Shashar, head of marine biology and biotechnology at Eilat’s Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science, said he anticipated “a constant leak of oil pollution” just off the coast.
Other activists predicted that the project — initiated in the wake of last year’s laudable Israel-UAE normalization agreements — could lead to “the next ecological disaster.”
They were wrong, of course.
The “next ecological disaster” is now all too obviously here, blackly congealed along our Mediterranean coast.
It is estimated that at least half of oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean. An oil spill at sea has thus forced the closure of one of our most vital breathing spaces, if not the most vital.
If that does not prompt the radical elevation of environmental protection to the top of the national agenda — embracing, too, longtime concerns about pollution from our offshore natural gas fields — then nothing will.
And Israel will be doomed to deepening environmental blight.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.