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Satellite images of oil slicks off coast show recent spill far from a one-off

Greenpeace says spillages are ‘a stain on the government’ for consistently ignoring calls to monitor and prepare for toxic pollution

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

Satellite image from February 13, 2021, of a 26.4 kilometer(16.4 mile) long oil spill about 10 km (six miles) from Hadera in northern Israel.
Satellite image from February 13, 2021, of a 26.4 kilometer(16.4 mile) long oil spill about 10 km (six miles) from Hadera in northern Israel.

The environmental organization Greenpeace on Sunday published images from the European Sentinel satellite showing 12 apparent oil slicks at various distances from Israel’s shores in the days before a storm washed tons of tar onto 160 kilometers (99 miles) of Israel’s coastline.

The findings suggest that oil leaks or dumping are relatively common in the region, as they are throughout the world.

Oil spills can take place wherever oil is drilled, transported or used, and can be caused by anything from accidents during refueling to breaks in pipelines, discharges from oil wells, or mistakes during drilling. Oil can also be dumped overboard, for example, if is starting to harden, although this is illegal.

Greenpeace Israel worked with its German counterpart to get hold of the images from SentinelOne, part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Program. It concluded that “when it comes to the marine environment, there is no monitoring, no enforcement and no emergency plans [by the Israeli authorities]” and that this was a “very serious and inconceivable failure.”

One satellite image from February 11 showing an oil slick 44 kilometers (28 miles) from Israel’s coast appears to be the same one that the Environmental Protection Ministry cited when it announced that it had found evidence of a spill on the same date “around 50 kilometers” from the shore.

Sentinel satellite pictures of 12 points where pollution was seen on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea between February 11 to 13, 2021. (Greenpeace)
Satellite image of a stain on the sea’s surface on February 11, 2021, that was 21 kilometers (13 miles) long and located 44 km (27 miles) off Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The white dots around the green line are ships. (Greenpeace)

It is harder to interpret the satellite images from February 12 and 13, however, Greenpeace said.

These show stains on the sea’s surface close to both the southern and northern sections of Israel’s coastline, which runs for 195 kilometers (121 miles).

It is unclear whether they show the slick spreading from the south to the north, as the Environmental Protection Ministry has indicated, or whether there was more than one slick, with more than one cause.

Sentinel satellite image from February 12, 2021, showing a 28-kilometer (17-mile) long oil slick close to the Ashdod shore in southern Israel. (Greenpeace)

On February 12, when the satellite picked up three stains, two in the south and one in the north off Israel’s shore, a further three were identified much further off the coast of  Lebanon and three southeast of Cyprus.

On February 13, stains were picked up off the southern and northern coasts of Israel as well.

Satellite image from February 13, 2021, of a 26.4 kilometer(16.4 mile) long oil spill about 10 km (six miles) from Hadera in northern Israel.

On Saturday, Air Force drones located a new oil slick located some 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Israel’s shores that the Environmental Protection Ministry said appeared to be moving south rather than towards Israel’s shores.

Black spots identified by the satellite indicate an area where there is a change in the composition of water, characteristic of a fatty substance that is usually oil.

“These findings further expose the state authorities’ lack of preparedness for this type of event,” Greenpeace said, charging that the state had ignored the demands of environmental organizations for years that Israel advance basic measures to deal with oil and toxic fuel contamination.

Such measures should have included constant monitoring of the sea and assessment of available technological advances, patrols by designated ships and the erection of physical barriers where necessary that could be used to surround a spill and stop it from reaching the shore, the organization added.

“The oil stains we have uncovered today are stains on the conduct of a government that disregards nature and man and has not taken care to be minimally prepared for such a disaster,” Greenpeace Israel’s director Jonathan Aikhenbaum said.

He added: “The Middle East Basin has become a haven for lawbreakers and the unbridled fossil fuel industry. It can already be said that this is not an Iranian attack or one unruly ship, but that our sea is the no man’s land where ships get rid of toxic substances.

“Without weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, such disasters are not a question of whether [they happen], but of when and how much.”

Greenpeace Israel director Yonatan Aikhenbaum. (Courtesy)

Aikhenbaum joined other environmental organizations and more than 200 scientists in condemning a deal signed between an Israeli-United Arab Emirates consortium and the Israeli government-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company to bring Gulf oil to Eilat, on the Red Sea coast, channel it overland through an old pipe to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea, and then reload it onto tankers bound for European markets,

This plan, along with the development of more gas and oil facilities in the Mediterranean Sea and the production of oil shale near the Dead Sea were  “particularly jarring when solar energy and storage have already become the cheapest source of electricity,” he added. “A sunny country needs to invest in a smart future and stop the addiction to fuels of the past.”

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