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State-owned company, 5 executives may face trial over 2014 desert oil spill

Pre-trial hearing set for suspects over worst ecological disaster in Israel’s history, which saw 5 million liters of crude spilled when EAPC pipeline ruptured

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)

State prosecutors announced on Tuesday that the state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), along with five current and former senior executives at the company, could stand trial, pending a hearing, over their alleged role in an oil spill that devastated a nature reserve in southern Israel in 2014.

According to a statement, the individuals are suspected of “committing large-scale environmental offenses” as well as bearing responsibility for the resulting pollution from the oil spill, considered the worst ecological disaster in Israel’s history.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, some 5 million liters of crude oil were spilled when a pipeline belonging to EAPC ruptured, causing significant environmental damage to the Arava desert and Evrona Nature Reserve.

According to the Tuesday statement released by the ministry, during work to relocate a pipe on December 3, 2014, there was an engineering fault that caused the pipe to rupture, precipitating the oil spill, which caused some NIS 100 million in damage.

A lizard covered in oil following a huge oil spill in the Arava area of southern Israel, on December 16, 2014. (Roy Talbi/Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry)

The statement said that it was suspected the accident was mainly due to faulty implementation of EAPC’s own regulations, including the failure to draw up a detailed plan for the work and a lack of coordination between the relevant departments in the company.

Last year, a settlement was reached in a class action suit determining that EAPC would pay NIS 100 million ($28 million) 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.

Oil seeps between desert bushes in the Evrona Nature Reserve, December 7, 2014. (photo credit: Environmental Protection Ministry spokesperson/Roi Talbi)

Earlier this 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. 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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