Jordan says Aqaba oil leak under control while Israelis watch for damage
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Jordan says Aqaba oil leak under control while Israelis watch for damage

Officials in Amman downplay extent of spill, but ecologists caution of clean-up’s potential harm to coral reef ecosystem

An aerial view of the top of the Gulf of Aqaba in the morning of August 24, 2016, one day after a burst pipe in Aqaba leaked approximately 200 tons of crude oil into the Red Sea. (courtesy Eli Warburg/Environmental Protection Ministry)
An aerial view of the top of the Gulf of Aqaba in the morning of August 24, 2016, one day after a burst pipe in Aqaba leaked approximately 200 tons of crude oil into the Red Sea. (courtesy Eli Warburg/Environmental Protection Ministry)

Jordanian officials said that a burst pipe that leaked approximately 200 tons of crude oil into the port of Aqaba late Tuesday has been largely contained, while their Israeli counterparts noted that the oil was unlikely to reach the beaches of Eilat.

“The Jordanians have controlled the leak, so we’re lowering our level of preparation but continuing to monitor the situation,” said a Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson.

“We’re working with them in cooperation. We are in constant contact with them, and allowing them to finish the work.”

Reports in the Jordanian press downplayed the severity of the leak. Director of Civil Defense Col. Muhammad al-Habahba told the Jordanian daily al-Ghad that workers prevented nearly all of the oil from reaching the sea.

The amount of oil that entered the water did not exceed five liters, and it didn’t appear to have an effect on the surface of the sea, he said.

Eilat beaches were open to swimmers as normal. The Environmental Protection Ministry added that because of the wind, any oil slicks are unlikely to reach Israeli beaches.

A joint statement from both ministries said Israel had contacted Jordanian officials to offer assistance with cleaning up the spill.

Environment Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold approved the offer to supply Israeli equipment and manpower to help clean-up efforts, but the Jordanians were currently “handling the incident themselves,” the statement said.

Still, officials in the four countries that flank the Gulf of Aqaba – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt — are closely watching the situation to determine possible damage. “The ecological system doesn’t have borders, the Gulf of Eilat is one entity,” said Rami Amir, the director of the Marine Environment Protection Division.

Professor Bella Galil, a senior scientist at the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute said in treating the spill it was crucial that Jordanian officials not use chemical dispersants, which emulsify the oil and turn it into small droplets that are invisible to the human eye but even more devastating for the coral reefs.

“The best method under the current conditions is the physical removal of oil, catching it in booms and soaking it up in special material and removing it to landfills,” she said.

Tourists watch the water from the aquapark bridge at the Coral beach, in the Red sea, Eilat on May 29, 2009. (photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)
Tourists watch the water from the aquapark bridge at the Coral beach, in the Red sea, Eilat on May 29, 2009. (Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)

“The attention is focused on coral and coral reef, but [oil spills] can affect the entire water column, especially if oil is on the surface and subsurface,” she said.

The gulf’s famous multi-hued coral reef and abundant fish population are dependent on an intricate food web. Invisible oil droplets can harm the smallest members of this food web, the cytoplankton and zooplankton, which provide food for the coral and its inhabitants, Galil explained.

“Even if oil spill doesn’t reach the coral reef, they are impacted because their food chain is impacted,” said Galil. “People say ‘ok, but the oil spill is 20 kilometers away.’ But the plankton in the Gulf is one unit. If it is dying or turning toxic because of emulsified oil it will impact the coral even if the coral is not in contact with the oil itself.”

Tropical fish at the Eilat Dolphin Reef. (Asaf Zvuloni/ Israel Nature and Parks Authority/FLASH90)
Tropical fish at the Eilat Dolphin Reef. (Asaf Zvuloni/ Israel Nature and Parks Authority/FLASH90)

Amir said that Israeli authorities are not sure what methods the Jordanians are using to control the spill but they have all of the same equipment as the Israeli side, including oil booms and skimmers, which contain the oil and remove it physically from the water without chemical emulsifiers.

In the past, both Israeli and Jordanian sides have used chemical dispersants to treat oil spills, until a 2007 study led by Israeli researchers in the Gulf of Aqaba found this was harmful.

“Coral reefs adjacent to ports don’t have a very long life expectancy,” said Galil, noting that some species of coral can live for hundreds of years. “There are two ports that are very much at the top of the bay. This doesn’t make for happy longevity.”

Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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