Efforts were continuing at the weekend to clean up a major oil spill that flooded the highway leading into Eilat on Thursday, caused widespread environmental damage, and sent over 80 people on both sides of the Israel-Jordan border to hospital with respiratory problems. Experts have warned that the spill — 3 million liters, or 660,000 gallons, according to one expert — could take months or even years to clean up.
Considered one of Israel’s worst ecological disasters, teams from Trans-Israel pipeline, a major oil conduit between the Mediterranean and Red seas that runs from Eilat to Ashkelon, were working around the clock to pump the oil out and prevent further contamination of the area.
The Environmental Protection Ministry, according to Israel Radio, demanded that the company send additional personnel and equipment to the site to complete the clean up process ahead of an impending rain storm next week, according to weather forecasters.
The pipeline leak, near the village of Be’er Ora in the Arava, caused a major highway closure Thursday morning, with traffic allowed to resume only hours later. Route 90, Israel’s longest road and the main route of access into the resort town of Eilat was affected up to Ketura, roughly 50 kilometers (30 miles) apart.
Police rerouted traffic overnight to route 12, which skirts along the Egyptian border.
In Jordan, more than 80 people were hospitalized, including 30 workers at Aqaba’s King Hussein International Airport. The city’s residents were ordered to remain indoors, Jordanian media reported.
On the Israeli side, at least three people were treated by paramedics after they inhaled poisonous gases.
A preliminary investigation indicated that the spill was caused after the pipeline was struck accidentally during maintenance work.
Firefighters and environmental groups scrambled to the scene in an attempt to seal the puncture in the pipeline and prevent further contamination, which was described as “considerable” by Guy Samet, the director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s southern region.
“This is one of the largest [environmental] events in the history of the country,” Samet told Channel 10.
“We’re talking about thousands of gallons of crude oil, which will endanger local wildlife and the surrounding nature reserve,” he said, adding that rehabilitation could take “years.”
The spill was “a couple of kilometers long”, according to an Environmental Protection Ministry spokeswoman who was unable to give more specific information.
Be’er Ora sits in the sparsely populated Arava region, 20 kilometers north of Eilat, beside multiple nature reserves that are home to indigenous flora and fauna, including rare acacia trees and over 280 deer, said Doron Nissim, director of the Nature and Parks Authority’s Eilat chapter.
“From what we currently know, there is extensive pollution,” he told the news site Ynet on Wednesday night.