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State-owned company, 4 executives indicted over massive 2014 desert oil spill

Prosecutors blame the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company and its officials for ‘one of the biggest incidents of ecological damage the country has ever seen’

A view of the oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, on December 9, 2014 (Environmental Protection Ministry)
A view of the oil leak in the Arava area of southern Israel, on December 9, 2014 (Environmental Protection Ministry)

Prosecutors filed an indictment Tuesday against the state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), along with four current and former senior executives at the company, over their alleged role in an oil spill that devastated a nature reserve in southern Israel in 2014.

The indictment states that EAPC, its deputy CEOs for operations and engineering Shimcha Koren and Shlomo Levi, engineer Arthur Weiss and director of pipeline maintenance Haim Bar-Sela are accused of responsibility for the failures which caused “one of the biggest incidents of ecological damage the country has ever seen.”

They were charged with committing environmental offenses under the Water Act and the Prevention of Hazards Act.

More than 144 dunams (35 acres) of land were polluted and the cost of the damage according to experts was around NIS 100 million ($32 million), the indictment stated.

In December 2014, some 5 million liters of crude oil spilled from an EAPC pipe connecting the southern port city of Eilat with the Mediterranean Sea port of Ashkelon, causing significant environmental damage to the Arava desert and Evrona Nature Reserve.

According to the indictment, the spill happened as engineers were working to move an 800-meter section of the pipe six meters to the side, in order to make room for an approach road for Ramon Airport, under construction at the time. During the course of the work an engineering failure occurred and the pipe dislocated.

View of the oil leak from a pipe of the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company in the Arava area of South Israel, which caused Israel’s biggest environmental disaster, on December 9, 2014. (Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post/POOL)

“As a result of the incident, great damage was caused to the ecology of the reserve,” prosecutors wrote.

“The flow of fuel swept away plants and animals, including protected species, and caused damage to soil structure and micro-habitats. There was also damage to the surface crust and water availability in the area,” the indictment said.

Prosecutors said the prime cause of the spill was “defective work performed without a detailed plan while violating EAPC safety rules and procedures” and without sufficient coordination between planners and those carrying out the work.

Responding to the indictment, the EAPC described the spill as “an anomalous occurrence from around seven years ago, which occurred due to a specific failure, not during the company’s regular operations.”

The company claimed in a statement that it acted “responsibly and efficiently, professionally and quickly” immediately after the spill occurred.

“Since the event, the company has learned lessons, changed procedures and is working hard to rehabilitate the soil.” the statement added, saying that the EAPC was “committed to the values of nature and environmental protection, and has invested many resources in them over the years.”

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

The Environmental Protection Ministry, which was involved in mediation proceedings, said the payout was “the highest reached during proceedings on environmental disasters,” and marks a “significant milestone” for environmental law and its enforcement. However, the ministry had previously assessed the damages at NIS 281 million ($80 million).

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of a large oil spill in the Arava valley in southern Israel, Tuesday, December 9, 2014 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Last year, EAPC and a construction company were convicted of harming protected nature in the Red Sea after damaging more than 2,600 corals off the southern coastal town of Eilat during other work in 2014 not related to the oil spill. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority provided reports and photographs to prove the damage, citing 665 corals that were aged around 50 and whose rehabilitation would take many years. It also documented harm to many creatures whose lives depend on corals, including fish and invertebrates.

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.

As relations between Israel and Iran deteriorated following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran dropped out of the arrangement and the company is now managed only by Israel.

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