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Polluting company agrees to clean up in return for extension of Negev concession

Rotem Amfert and parent company the ICL Group guarantee to address decades of waste caused by phosphorus mining, rehabilitate soil and water

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

Phosphogypsum waste at Rotem Amfert in the Negev, southern Israel. (Environmental Protection Ministry)
Phosphogypsum waste at Rotem Amfert in the Negev, southern Israel. (Environmental Protection Ministry)

The government on Wednesday agreed to allow one of the country’s most polluting companies to continue to mine and process phosphates for another three years in the Negev Desert, on condition that it funds the cleanup of an estimated million cubic meters of industrial waste that has built up over decades.

Phosphates are used in fertilizer and other industries.

Rotem Amfert, near the southern city of Dimona, has a 19-year concession that ends on December 31.

In June, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar froze talks on renewal while investigations were carried out into Rotem Amfert’s royalty payments for the years 2016-2018.

Two weeks ago, Rotem Amfert agreed to pay the Energy Ministry an additional NIS 23.7 million ($7.5 million) on top of the NIS 53 million ($16.7 million) it had already paid, based on its calculations.

The Energy and Environmental Protection ministries and the Accountant General agreed that the concession could be extended for another three years (the company had initially wanted nine) but the Knesset Finance Committee had to give its final approval.

Rotem Amfert. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

Guy Samet, who is in charge of natural resources at the Energy Ministry, told the committee on Wednesday that after studying the way royalties are calculated overseas, the ministry had changed its regulations to ensure maximum royalty collection in the future.

An Energy Ministry spokesman later clarified that the company has paid NIS 158,157,000 ($50 million) in royalties for the years 2010-2020.

The Environmental Protection Ministry estimates that it will take 20 years and around NIS 325 million ($103 million) to clean up what accounts for 80% of all industrial waste in the country and to rehabilitate the soil and water polluted by waste seepage.

Most of the waste is phosphogypsum, which is radioactive.

The concession, therefore, includes clauses obliging Rotem Amfert to transfer an initial NIS 60 million ($19 million) during the next few weeks and to provide renewable bank guarantees into the future, to be underwritten by the ICL Group (formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd.).

Should the companies breach their obligations, the state will be able to step in, utilize the guarantees and impose fines.

A detailed program and timetable for the cleanup have been included in the permits the Environmental Protection Ministry issues to Rotem Amfert and will form an appendix to the concession deal.

Rotem Amfert’s alleged pollution of groundwater and streams such as the popular Bokek Stream close to the Dead Sea are not mentioned in the concession agreement.

Flowing waters at the Bokek Nature Reserve, which a class action suit claims have been polluted by industry. (YouTube screenshot)

Environmental Protection Ministry officials told the Knesset Finance Committee that these were being dealt with by legal suits, each running into hundreds of millions of shekels, some of which the ministry had joined.

Rotem Amfert is responsible for one of Israel’s worst environmental disasters. On June 23, 2017, the wall of an evaporation pond collapsed, sending between 100,000 and 250,000 cubic meters (3.5 million to 8.8 million cubic feet) or more of highly toxic wastewater rushing through the nearby Ashalim Stream.

At least 13 ibexes — a third of those living in the area — and numerous foxes and birds were found dead in the two weeks following the spill, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

A Nature and Parks Authority worker carries a dead gazelle after the acid waste spill on June 30, 2017, in the Ashalim stream. (Mark Katz/Nature and Parks Authority)

Three years on and the environment nearest to the leak is still not recovering.

Nine natural floods that have swept through the area have not managed to wash away the fluorine, phosphorus, sulfur, sodium and heavy metals that still pollute the soil.

Several lawmakers spoke during Wednesday’s discussion of what they referred to as ICL’s repeated attempts to avoid paying its dues to the state.

Veteran environmental campaigner MK Alon Tal (Yesh Atid) described the conglomerate as a “serial offender.”

In October, ICL’s lawyers persuaded the Justice Ministry to back down and wipe a NIS 65 million ($20 million) debt owed for water use by another ICL company, Dead Sea Works.

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

The lawyers had argued that payments for the use of water within the Dead Sea Works’ concession area were included in the royalties it paid and took priority over the Water Act.

ICL is still arguing with the tax authorities over $180 million that it has been ordered to pay for the years 2016 and 2017 into a sovereign wealth fund for excess profits from natural resources, including oil, gas and minerals.

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