State recommends police probe Negev phosphate plant over pollution
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State recommends police probe Negev phosphate plant over pollution

Rotem Amfert, already responsible for Ashalim ecological disaster in 2017, to be investigated for flow of chemical sludge into open pits in February

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Israel Chemicals' Rotem Amfert plant. (Shay Levy/Flash90)
Israel Chemicals' Rotem Amfert plant. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry has recommended that the Green Police investigate whether a phosphate mining company in the Negev desert, which was already responsible for one of Israel’s worst ecological disasters, broke the law by allowing phosphate sludge to flow into open mining pits close to the Zin stream bed in southern Israel.

The Green Police is a body with the authority to arrest, fine and charge those suspected of breaking environmental and other relevant laws.

In March, the ministry summoned representatives of the Rotem Amfert plant at Zin to a hearing about breaching the Water Law and water-pollution-related regulations the previous month by allowing some 200 cubic meters of sludge to flow from a factory pond into the plant’s mining pits following heavy rain. The sludge was not hazardous, the ministry said at the time.

A ministry statement issued Wednesday said that after listening to the claims of the plant’s representatives and examining the documentation, its Southern District Manager had decided to recommend transferring the case to the Green Police for further investigation.

With long-term phosphate mining concessions, ICL Rotem operates open pit phosphate mines at two desert locations — Rotem and Zin — mainly producing phosphoric acid and fertilizers.

Together with Dead Sea Works, which extracts minerals from the Dead Sea, ICL Rotem forms part of Israel Chemicals Ltd, which, in turn, is controlled by the Ofer family’s Israel Corporation, the country’s largest holding company.

A dead ibex found in Nahal Ashalim on July 15, 2017. (Nature and Parks Authority)

In June 2017, Rotem Amfert caused lasting environmental damage when a storage pool partially collapsed, sending 100,000 cubic meters of acidic phospho-gypsum liquid into the nearby Ashalim stream, a dry riverbed leading from the Rotem industrial zone, via a nature preserve, to the Dead Sea. The toxic wastewater destroyed everything in its path as it wound its way down through the desert, poisoning a third of the local ibexes in its wake as well as other animals and plants.

The Ashalim disaster lead the Knesset to pass a law in January allowing class action suits against companies that harm the environment.

At the end of October, the biggest environmental class action suit in Israeli history entered its final stage at the Beersheba District Court with a demand that Rotem Amfert and a second ICL factory, Dead Sea Periclase Ltd, pay NIS 1.4 billion ($400 million) in damages for polluting groundwater and a popular spring and stream at the Ein Bokek nature reserve near the Dead Sea.

In a separate case, the state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) agreed last month to pay NIS 100 million ($28 million) in damages over a 2014 oil spill into the Zin Valley and Evrona Nature Reserve, according to the terms of a settlement reached in a class action suit.

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

According to an analysis of open-source data published Tuesday by the environmental group Adam Teva V’Din, Ofer family factories were responsible for at least NIS 1.2 billion ($340 million) worth of damage to public health caused by air pollution last year.

The report charges that the family’s main oil refining, mineral extraction and chemical plants emitted more than a third of reported sulfur dioxide emissions countrywide, more than a fifth of pollution caused by large particulate matter (particles of pollution), just under a fifth of all nitrous oxides, 17 percent of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and nearly 10% of benzene, which is known to cause cancer.

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