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Popular stream in south to reopen 3 years after deadly chemical spill

Environmental Protection Ministry, Israel Nature and Parks Authority declare Ashalim stream safe after risk assessment, soil and water sampling

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

A dead ibex found on July 15, 2017, following the collapse of an evaporation pond wall that released toxic waste water into the Ashalim stream in southern Israel. (Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
A dead ibex found on July 15, 2017, following the collapse of an evaporation pond wall that released toxic waste water into the Ashalim stream in southern Israel. (Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Three years after the wall of an evaporation pond at a fertilizer factory in southern Israel collapsed, sending poisonous water rushing into the Ashalim stream and killing wildlife and vegetation, the government on Monday announced that the stream is now safe and will reopen to the public.

In a joint statement, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that an extensive survey had been carried out by an international company and that over recent weeks, samples had been taken of soil and water. After consulting with the Health Ministry, the two bodies decided to reopen the area to hikers.

The collapse of the evaporation pond wall at the Rotem Amfert Negev plant on the Rotem plain — a center for phosphate mining in the Negev desert southwest of the Dead Sea — sent some 100,000 cubic meters (more than 35,000 tons) of acidic water and other pollutants rushing through the Ashalim stream.

At least eight 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, with concern that toxic pools would kill more wildlife desperate to drink during the hot summer.

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

The Environmental Protection Ministry banned Rotem Amfert from using three evaporation ponds for gypsum flow that contained the highly acidic wastewater and ordered it to install additional sensors, conduct frequent monitoring tests, and meet certain other conditions. A month after the spill, the ministry launched a criminal investigation into company managers and the parent company, Israel Chemicals Ltd. But after filing a NIS 397 million ($112.5 million) civil class action lawsuit, the state later agreed to out-of-court mediation.

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police is still conducting a criminal investigation into what caused the wall collapse and whether environmental laws were violated at the plant.

Rotem Amfert is also the subject of the biggest environmental class action suit in Israeli history, which demands that it and Dead Sea Periclase Ltd pay NIS 1.4 billion ($400 million) in damages for polluting groundwater and a popular spring and stream at the Ein Bokek nature reserve near the Dead Sea.

The Ashalim Stream after it was polluted in June 2017. (Georgi Norkin, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
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