Streams of mixed oil and water flowed in the Arava desert Tuesday afternoon as flash floods ravaged the area, sparking fears the flooding would carry pollutants from a massive oil spill in the region southward to the port city of Eilat and its gulf.
An Environmental Protection Ministry helicopter pilot flying above southern Israel reported that the contaminated streams have not penetrated a dam erected by ministry workers in the Evrona nature reserve in the morning in an attempt to prevent the oil from spreading beyond the already polluted region, according to Israel Radio.
Earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to the area to examine the oil spill as rain began to pound the region on Tuesday afternoon. Netanyahu has been the acting environmental protection minister since the resignation of Amir Peretz last month. On Monday, he appointed Likud MK Ofir Akunis as deputy environmental protection minister, but kept the ministerial portfolio. Akunis will take office once the Knesset officially issues a statement on the matter, after his appointment was approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday.
Highway 90 between Eilat and the Ketura junction was closed to traffic on Tuesday afternoon due to flooding.
Residents of the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba, which could also be affected by the oil, reported strong winds and flooding. An emergency command center had been set up by the Jordanian government in preparation for floods.
Figures released on Sunday night showed that the scale of the ecological disaster caused by the ruptured oil pipeline in southern Israel was 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 that three million liters were spilled in the accident, which took place overnight Thursday-Friday.
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.
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.
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 sooner 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 to compensate for damage to health and discomfort caused by the ecological disaster.
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.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.