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After Israel canceled Dead Sea Works’ water bill, NGO threatens appeal to High Court

Environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din demands Justice Ministry reverse state’s decision to exempt billionaire-owned mineral extraction firm from NIS 65M payment

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A view of the Dead Sea Works on December 26, 2015. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
A view of the Dead Sea Works on December 26, 2015. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

A major environmental group is asking Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara to change a Justice Ministry decision exempting the Dead Sea Works company from paying tens of millions of shekels for the water it uses.

Adam Teva V’Din says it plans to appeal to the High Court of Justice if Baharav-Miara doesn’t force the mineral extraction behemoth to pay.

In October, the state wiped NIS 65 million (around $20 million) off a NIS 83 million water bill sent to billionaire Idan Ofer’s mineral extraction company Dead Sea Works, because the Justice Ministry was not sure it could prove in court that the company, in southern Israel, was obliged to pay its water bills in full under the terms of the Water Law.

It remains unclear whether Dead Sea Works paid the difference.

The company argued that the bills were covered by the royalties Dead Sea Works pays the state and that its franchise agreement took precedence over the Water Law.

The October decision related to water from wells that Dead Sea Works pumps from areas within its franchise area, for use in its industrial processes.

It also does not pay for the saltwater it pumps from the northern Dead Sea because salinity there exceeds levels for which water can be charged, according to current regulations.

Adam Teva V’Din argues that agreements giving the company rights to mine potash, bromine and magnesium from the salt lake neither ruled out the applicability of the Water Law nor the obligation for the company to pay its bills.

It also charges that Dead Sea Works’ contribution to the shrinking of the Dead Sea only strengthens the need to charge it for water, to encourage it to use less.

The group is also working to get regulations changed so that the company will be charged for using the salty water from the northern Dead Sea.

A canal that takes water pumped from the Dead Sea uphill to evaporation pools at the Dead Sea Works. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

In late 2019, Adam Teva V’Din won a rare victory against the powerful company in the Haifa District Court. Judge Ron Sokol ruled then that the Dead Sea was definitely covered by the Water Law and should therefore be subject to a water license. He ruled that the Concession Law was meant to protect the company from competition, not to restrict the applicability of the Water Law, or to absolve the company of its obligation to pay its water bills.

The Water Authority did start to issue licenses, in line with the court’s ruling. But after the Mekorot water company presented the Dead Sea Works with the NIS 83 million ($25.4 million) water bill, the Water Authority withdrew it, after consulting with the Justice Ministry.

A view of the Dead Sea Works factory on February 2, 2018. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

The Dead Sea has shrunk by half since the mid-1970s due mainly to the diversion of water that would naturally flow into it for human needs.

Jordan’s Arab Potash Company and the Dead Sea Works in Israel, which is currently owned by ICL Group, pump out around 600 mcm per annum of water from the sea and return just half that amount after evaporation and extraction of minerals.

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