Massive oil spill almost twice the size initially thought
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Massive oil spill almost twice the size initially thought

Over five million liters of crude oil that flooded into Arava desert threaten to contaminate Eilat coral reefs

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An oil spill in the Arava area of southern Israel, on December 4, 2014. (Nature and Parks Authority)
An oil spill in the Arava area of southern Israel, on December 4, 2014. (Nature and Parks Authority)

As rains threaten to flood the delicate coral in the Gulf of Eilat with recently spilled pollutants, new figures released on Sunday night showed that the scale of the ecological disaster caused by a ruptured oil pipeline in southern Israel is nearly twice as bad as initially estimated.

The data sent by the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) to the Environmental Protection Ministry showed that some five million liters of crude oil burst from the pipe last week.

Initial reports last week indicated 3 million liters were spilled in the accident.

So far, damage control teams have cleared away 13,000 tons of polluted soil in an attempt to contain and minimize the impact of the spill.

Citing weather forecasts indicating heavy rainfall across the country later this week, ministry officials also voiced concern over the possibility that the polluted area would be hit by flash floods that would spread the contamination to additional territories in the south and possibly wash the oil into the Gulf of Eilat.

Located at the northern end of the Red Sea, the Gulf of Eilat is home to protected coral reefs, which could suffer major damage should they be contaminated by oil.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has prepared special absorbing materials ahead of an expected downpour, and dams were set up in Evrona nature reserve in an effort to contain the flow.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira ordered an immediate investigation into the disaster. A review of EAPC was due to be held in 2015 but the analysis is to be brought forward in light of the incident. The review will also look at the readiness of authorities that were directly and indirectly connected to the spillage.

Eilat resident Lisa Mellish on Sunday filed a class action lawsuit for NIS 380 million in the Tel Aviv District Court against EAPC, holding it responsible for the disaster.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all of the residents of Eilat, accuses the pipeline operators of environmental damage, negligence, and damaging the ecology. Mellish is demanding NIS 220 million ($55m) to rehabilitate the environment in coordination with the Environment Minster and the Israel Nature and Parks authority, as well as another NIS 180 million ($45m) for the 48,000 residents of Eilat for damage to their health and discomfort caused by the ecological disaster.

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.
(photo credit: Anna Kaplan/Flash 90)

EAPC said that the Trans-Israel pipeline was damaged last Thursday during maintenance and sent millions of liters of oil gushing into the southern desert, severely damaging a nature reserve and other areas.

An EAPC spokesperson said the line, which facilitates the transport of crude oil between Europe and Asia, burst due to “a technical error.”

Work on the pipeline was being carried out in tandem with the construction of Eilat’s Timna International Airport, slated to become operational by 2016.

The Environment Ministry ordered the company to stop operating the line, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and the Red seas, until it is issued a new permit, Israel Radio reported.

Over 80 people were treated for medical problems on both sides of the Israel-Jordan border following the spill, as crude oil flooded the Route 90 highway leading into Eilat. The vast majority of those initially affected were in Jordan.

Major oil spill north of Eilat leads to "extensive contamination" as a result of a damage to the Trans-Israel pipeline December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Fire Department)
Major oil spill north of Eilat leads to ‘extensive contamination’ as a result of a damage to the Trans-Israel pipeline December 4, 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy Eilat Fire Department)

The Evrona ecological reserve sits beside the community of Kibbutz Be’er Ora in the sparsely populated Arava desert, which is home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer.

The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company 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 of pipelines in Israel.

As relations between Israel and Iran, deteriorated the latter partner dropped out of arrangement and the company is now managed only by Israel.

According to Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, the oil company’s pipelines have suffered a series of contaminating leaks over the past eight years.

In 2007 some 40 tons of oil leaked from a pipe near Tirat Carmel in the north of the country. In 2011 a tractor working on an EAPC project hit one of the company’s pipelines releasing 1.5 million of liters of jet fuel into the Nahal Zin river in the south of the country. Weeks later, another company tractor hit the same pipe barely half a kilometer away causing yet another leak.

In 2012 seepage from an EPAC pipe near the Givati Junction required the removal of some 2,000 tons of contaminated soil.

Other incidents included a burst pipe near Poleg in 2008, and oil leaks into the sea in 1998,1999, and 2002 that eventually saw the company fined NIS 100,000 ($25 million). Eight months ago there was another leak at a facility in Eilat.

Yeditoh Ahronoth reported that so far no individuals have ever been brought to trial over the leaks.

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