State oil conglomerate fined NIS 1.5 million for massive leak in nature reserve

Two employees of Europe Asia Pipeline Company also handed small fines; CEO of environmental lobby says punishments ‘a mockery,’ urges state prosecution to demand jail time

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The massive oil leak in the Evrona nature reserve in 2014. ((Environmental Protection Ministry)
The massive oil leak in the Evrona nature reserve in 2014. ((Environmental Protection Ministry)

The Europe Asia Pipeline Company and two employees have received what one environmental group slammed as absurdly light fines for causing an oil leak in 2014 that devastated a nature reserve in southern Israel, creating the country’s largest environmental disaster to date.

On Thursday, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court published a ruling handed down three weeks ago and based on a plea bargain that fines the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company NIS 1,562,000 ($426,000) for damage to the reserve. A similar sum will be deposited as a bond against a repeat of the same crimes within the next three years.

The EAPC was found guilty of all charges against it, including pollution of water under aggravating circumstances, dumping of dirt and waste containing dangerous substances in the public domain, and causing unreasonable odors.

Shlomi Levi, deputy operations manager at the time, was fined NIS 35,000 ($9,550) and ordered to deposit a NIS 70,000 ($19,000) bond not to commit the same crimes within the next three years.

Haim Bar Sela, then serving as a field manager, received a NIS 20,000 ($5,450) fine and will post a NIS 40,000 ($10,900) bond. He was also ordered to do 180 hours of community service.

Both Levi and Bar Sela still work for the company.

Crude oil fanned out into the streambeds at the Evrona Nature Reserve following a leak from a pipe on December 3, 2014. (Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

The EAPC was diverting a section of pipeline near the Be’er Ora junction, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Eilat, before the construction of a new airport in southern Israel. An engineering failure occurred, the pipe came apart, and some five million liters (1.32 million US gallons) of crude oil spilled over an area of 144 dunams (35.6 acres). The spill killed flora and fauna, damaged the soil, and affected water availability in the area.

The results of a five-year monitoring program, published seven years after the disaster, found that the reserve was not showing signs of recovery and warned that its ecosystem could collapse unless ways were found to clean the soil and allow acacia tree seeds to start germinating again.

An expert opinion for the prosecution estimated the damage to the nature reserve at NIS 100 million ($27 million). The legal advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din, said it was told indirect costs of the damage were closer to 500,000,000 NIS ($136.4 million).

According to the indictment, the main cause of the engineering failure was the poor execution of the work, the absence of detailed planning, the violation of safety rules and procedures, and the absence of coordination between the planning and execution elements within the company.

It took the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police seven years to complete its investigation, resulting in the criminal charges only being brought by the state in 2021.

The ministry said Thursday that the the1,562,000 NIS fine was the largest possible under the circumstances, and that the plea deal allowed for “an appropriate punishment while streamlining the legal proceedings, given the long time that has passed since the incident.”

Arguments for and against jail time will be heard in April. Legal proceedings against two other company officials are ongoing and were not part of the plea deal.

In 2019, a settlement was reached in a class action suit determining that EAPC would pay NIS 100 million (then worth $28 million) in damages over the spill.

Amit Bracha, CEO of the environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din, said that “the absurd punishment of the serial polluter and its managers, makes a mockery of the environment and doesn’t begin to reflect the criminal management of the EAPC.”

“The Evrona nature reserve is a public resource and the prosecution should be demanding much larger fines for the criminal damage caused to this unique natural resource, in addition to prison time for those found responsible for the crimes,” he added.

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