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'Israel's worst environmental disaster in a decade'

Huge tar spill along coast; several taken ill as thousands try to clean beaches

Dozens of tons of tar said spilled at sea; Nature and Parks Authority urges public without protective gear to stay away; 100 miles of coast affected; widespread death of wildlife

  • A woman holds a dead fish after she cleaned it from tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A woman holds a dead fish after she cleaned it from tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at the Gador nature reserve near Hadera, northern Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea at the Gador nature reserve near Hadera, northern Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Tar pieces from an oil spill stuck on rocks in the Mediterranean sea as it reached Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a cleanup operation of Israeli shoreline as investigations are underway to determine the cause of an oil spill that threatens the beach and wildlife, at Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    Tar pieces from an oil spill stuck on rocks in the Mediterranean sea as it reached Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a cleanup operation of Israeli shoreline as investigations are underway to determine the cause of an oil spill that threatens the beach and wildlife, at Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
  • Israelis stand around a 17-meter fin whale washed ashore on the Nitzanim beach, near the city of Ashkelon, February 19, 2021. (Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
    Israelis stand around a 17-meter fin whale washed ashore on the Nitzanim beach, near the city of Ashkelon, February 19, 2021. (Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
  • People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
    People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel is tackling “the worst environmental disaster in a decade,” Nature and Parks Authority chief Shaul Goldstein said Saturday,” as huge quantities of tar spilled off share wreaked havoc along much of the country’s Mediterranean coastline. He said its impact could be felt for years.

A number of people who volunteered to participate in a cleanup operation of the massive tar spill were hospitalized Saturday after inhaling apparently toxic fumes.

The cause of the spill — involving dozens of tons of tar spilled at sea — was not definitively clear and was under investigation.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said an oil spill had been indentified about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast a week ago, and that one of 10 vessels that were in the area at the time may have been responsible.

From as north as Haifa and down south to Ashkelon near Gaza, black strips could be seen along the Mediterranean coastline. At Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.

Several thousand people came to beaches along Israel’s Mediterranean coast to help with the clean-up of the spill that is suspected of causing widespread wildlife deaths, including that of a 17-meter (55-foot) fin whale that washed up on a beach in southern Israel on Thursday.

But following the injuries, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority called on people to stay away from the beaches.

“At this stage, we ask the public not to arrive independently at the beaches for cleanup,” the authority said in a statement. “Cleaning requires the use of appropriate protective equipment to maintain health and the orderly evacuation [of the remnants] to a suitable site.”

Tar pieces from an oil spill stuck on rocks in the Mediterranean sea as it reached the Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The authority said it was currently engaged in mapping the areas affected by the tar. “We are preparing for a broad operation,” it added.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection said Saturday that on an observation flight, tar spills were found moving in the direction of several beaches in Haifa. The affected areas were between 200 and 500 meters (656 and 1,640 feet) from the shore, and the ministry said it was considering appropriate treatment.

The “tar pollution,” said the ministry, impacts about 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the coastal strip, from Rosh Hanikra in Israel’s far north to Ashkelon.

Earlier, a number of municipalities had called on volunteers to flock to the beaches to help with the manual cleanup.

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“This is an emergency situation,” said Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon, according to Channel 12. “We need dozens of working hands and equipment to clean up the remnants of the tar.”

The Haifa municipality wrote a Facebook post thanking volunteers who showed up Saturday morning to help.

The tar spill may have led to the death of a 17-meter (55-foot) fin whale that washed up on the shore of the Nitzanim reserve in southern Israel on Thursday, along with other sea creatures.

Danny Morick, a marine veterinarian, takes samples from a 17 meter (about 55 feet) dead fin whale’s body that washed up on a beach in the Nitzanim reserve, Feb. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The Parks Authority said it wasn’t clear what caused the death of the whale and other creatures, but director Goldstein cited a possible tar spill from a ship and said that a “tar pollution” incident was plaguing area waters in the eastern Mediterranean sea.

On Friday, Gamliel said the spill was a major disaster, and that authorities were searching for those responsible.

A woman holds a dead fish after she cleaned it of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea; in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“This is hazard of a magnitude we have not seen in years. We are doing everything in order to find those responsible for the destruction, and are preparing for the difficult and long task of rehabilitating the beaches and preventing further injury to animals,” Gamliel said.

On Thursday, Gamliel called the spill “heartbreaking” and a “crime against the environment and ecosystem,” and said she had ordered that care of injured animals be the response’s top priority.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said the tar contamination appeared to be from oils that were emitted by a ship off the coast.

Aviad Scheinin of the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station said a team will take samples from the whale to try to determine a cause of death.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said the whale was young, noting mature fin whales in the Mediterranean can grow to 20 meters (65 feet).

A similar whale washed up dead in the area in 2016.

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