Israel's Exxon Valdez

Pipeline disaster called ‘crude reminder’ of oil’s dangers

The timing of the Arava spill couldn’t be more ironic – just days before the start of Israel’s largest alternative energy conference

Yosef Abramowitz stands in front of the damaged portion of the Trans-Israel pipeline (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Abramowitz stands in front of the damaged portion of the Trans-Israel pipeline (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Last week’s crude oil pipeline explosion in southern Israel has caused inestimable damage to one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems, experts in ecology and alternative energy said.

“You can call this Israel’s Exxon Valdez, relatively speaking,” said Dorit Davidovich-Banet, director of the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative, which is holding its annual conference in Eilat this week. “In the space of just a few hours we lost millions of liters of oil that spread out for kilometers, because the explosion occurred under high pressure.”

“It is going to take months to clear out everything,” she added. “There is no question that the ecosystem in the region will feel the negative effects for years to come.”

The explosion came just five days before the start of the Eilat-Eilot conference, which brought together hundreds of alternative energy professionals, entrepreneurs, and activists from around the world gather to discuss energy policy and technology in Israel and abroad.

The explosion was much on the mind of speakers at the event, with nearly all – including Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom – declaring that they would “do everything in their power” to prevent a recurrence of what is shaping up to be an ecological tragedy. But for Davidovich-Banet and other non-government activists, the spill just emphasizes a point they have been making for years. “We depend on oil for so much, and this is an example of how bad oil is. It’s hard to kick the habit, but I think this incident shows that in the long run, we have no choice.”

The 1989 Valdez oil spill, which dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, killed as many as 250,000 seabirds, thousands of animals, and countless fish. Twenty-five years later, the negative effects of the spill are still being felt in the region, which scientists fear may never fully recover.

Last week, a portion of the Trans-Israel pipeline that runs from Israel’s coast to its southern port exploded as workers were working on moving it from its current location, in order to accommodate the construction of a new international airport being built outside Eilat. The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, which manages the pipeline, has not offered any explanations on what happened, providing only a terse statement that says the company “regrets the damage done” and will do “everything necessary to restore the status quo.”

Israeli environmental activists now worry that the Arava, the desert area of southeastern Israel, could face an ecological disaster that could, like the Valdez spill, destroy what had been a healthy, pristine ecosystem. Professor Elli Groner, director of the Arava Institute and one of Israel’s foremost authorities on environmental matters, fears that the oil could leak into the water table, jeopardizing the entire ecosystem.

“There is a large aquifer several dozen meters below the ground, and that is unlikely to be affected,” he said. “However, all the vegetation and wildlife in the area depends on water that is farther up, just a few centimeters below ground. I was out with other people over the past few days and we found oil as far down as a meter.”

A river runs through it: A seemingly endless stream of crude oil wends its way towards the moutains of Jordan (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A river runs through it: A seemingly endless stream of crude oil wends its way towards the mountains of Jordan (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The Parks and Nature Authority, which is in charge of the cleanup, has been removing 20 centimeters of oil-soaked dirt in affected areas, but Groner believes that large pockets of oil will remain, choking off the wildlife which will no longer be able to access its water supply.

“We found many small creatures that were bathing in oil, trying to shake it off – unsuccessfully, of course,” Groner said. “The large animals, we believe, are already abandoning the area, searching for new sources of water, but the small animals are unlikely to survive long-term. In addition, hundreds of trees are probably going to die.” Those trees are actually the only thing standing in the way of the complete desertification of the affected area, and if they die, Israel is likely to lose the fragile Evrona Nature Reserve, home to animals like wolves, hyenas, and unique species of gazelles.

Evidence of the extent of the damage was evident on a tour of the affected area led by alternative energy activist Yosef Abramowitz, who has worked for years to promote the use of solar energy in Israel and around the world. Abramowitz is the honorary chairman of the sixth annual Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference, the country’s premier conference on alternative and renewable energy, where technologies like solar energy, wind energy, biomass, and others were discussed and analyzed by experts from around the world.

Alternative energy activist Yossi Abramowitz 'samples' the running crude in the Evrona Nature Reserve (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Alternative energy activist Yosef Abramowitz ‘samples’ the running crude in the Evrona Nature Reserve (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Abramowitz, along with partners David Rosenblatt and Ed Hofland, established Israel’s largest solar field to generate electricity in Kibbutz Ketura, and was the first to sign a deal with the government for commercial production of solar-generated electricity. More recently, Abramowitz has set his sights on Africa, hoping to electrify far-flung villages where power cables are unlikely to ever reach. He established, with David Rosenblatt and Howie Rodenstein, a new company called Energiya Global Capital to help develop projects in Rwanda and other African countries, along with partner Chaim Motzen.

“The Eilat-Eilot Alternative Energy Conference was supposed to be a venue for good news,” said Abramowitz. “We were going to announce that by the end of 2016, the entire area from Eilat north to the Dead Sea would be 100% supplied by solar energy, as new solar fields in the Arava come online. Instead the news we are getting is of this unprecedented ecological disaster. Instead, Israel is dumping oil on our renewable energy parade.”

Damaged moonscape

As one of the most experienced people in Israel on alternative energy matters, Abramowitz was the perfect guide for a group of journalists exploring part of the damaged area. The explosion itself occurred along Road 90, the main north-south road serving Eilat, but furrows about 20 centimeters deep could be seen even several kilometers away from the explosion site, alongside little rivulets and lakes of oil that still had not been removed.

A frantic cleanup of the site has begun, with dozens of trucks, tractors, and other heavy equipment deployed to remove as much oil as possible. That entails removing tons of dirt into which the oil has seeped (the dirt is being trucked out to a dump site north of Eilat). The increased activity over the weekend was prompted by weather forecasts that said heavy rain was expected in the Arava Tuesday, with officials fearing that the oil, currently concentrated on higher ground (closer to Road 90), will flow downhill further east, where the ground slopes down into the Evrona reserve. But puddles, streams, and pools of oil could be seen even several kilometers away from the site of the explosion, presenting a dark, jarring picture of the Arava’s rocky moonscape.

Abramowitz took a final swig of a soft drink and, emptying out the last drop, began filling it with the pure crude flowing on the ground. “It’s like the Beverly Hillbillies come to Israel,” he said, referring to the 1960s American sitcom in which a poor sharecropper gets rich after discovering oil on his property. “The only problem is that this is going to cause us to cry, not laugh, for a long time. I plan to take this bottle of oil with me whenever I meet ministers who have the power to advance solar technology and do not, and ask them if this is the legacy they want to leave our children.”

Dump trucks plow through the Evrona Nature Reserve, removing oil-soaked dirt (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dump trucks plow through the Evrona Nature Reserve, removing oil-soaked dirt (Photo credit: Courtesy)

As the jeep approached Road 90, more and more heavy vehicles could be seen – most of them carting soil into and out of the “contaminated zone.” When asked why they were concentrating their efforts on the area of Road 90, one worker said that it was where most of the oil was concentrated, as it was adjacent to the explosion site. Since the road is situated on higher ground, it was considered important to direct resources there before the oil spilled over into the lower ground of the nature reserve.

Several times, Parks and Nature Authority officials warned off the jeep’s driver, telling him that he was “not authorized” to enter the area. When asked, one official admitted that neither police nor the IDF had declared the area a “closed zone,” but complained that “you are getting in the way and the trucks and tractors can’t get through.” Indeed, four trucks carrying dirt quickly pulled in behind the jeep; to accommodate them the driver pulled onto the side of the road, letting them through, before moving on.

The main clean-up area near the highway resembled a construction site, with tractors turning over ground and scooping it into dump trucks at a frenetic rate. “A tractor in the desert – that’s not something you see every day,” said the driver. After a few more minutes, the jeep reached its final destination – the explosion site itself, where Abramowitz talked about the lessons that he believed Israel needed to learn from the explosion. “It’s very simple. We’re here in the Arava in a peaceful part of the country, where there is good security cooperation with Jordan, and even here we were unable to prevent an ecological disaster. How do we think we are going to prevent an environmental disaster at Israel’s natural gas platforms 150 kilometers out at sea that are likely to be targets for terrorists?”

A Nature and Parks Authority official warns the jeep's driver against driving into the 'contaminated zone' (Photo credit: Courtesy)
A Nature and Parks Authority official warns the jeep’s driver against driving into the ‘contaminated zone’ (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Besides damaging the environment, said Abramowitz, the spill could very possibly damage relations between Israel and Jordan. “I know there were reports that 80 people in Jordan were hospitalized because of fumes, but I’m not sure about the accuracy of those reports. But I do know that if our spilled oil damages Jordan’s ecosystem, it’s not going to be good for relations with them. Oil, I am sorry to say, is bad for the environment, and bad for peace. Israel, with its sun and technology, should be a shining example to the world of what solar energy can do, but this disaster is a crude reminder of the damage this poison can cause. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

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