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Study: Ecosystem could collapse at nature reserve hit by oil spill 7 years ago

Wildlife, as well as seedlings of acacia trees, essential to ecosystem, not recovering, 5-year monitoring program in Evrona Nature Reserve concludes

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

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)
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)

A nature reserve in southern Israel that was subject to a massive oil leak seven years ago is not showing signs of recovery and its ecosystem could collapse unless ways are found to clean the soil and allow acacia tree seeds to start germinating again, according to the conclusions of a five-year monitoring study released Thursday.

On December 3, 2014, some 5 million liters (1.32 million US gallons) of crude oil poured out of a pipe owned by the Europe Asia Pipeline Company into the Evrona Nature Reserve in the Arava Desert.

The spill took place near Be’er Ora, some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) north of Eilat, during maintenance work prior to the construction of a new airport in Timna.

After initial steps to pump out and evacuate as much oil as possible, a program to monitor the reserve over five years was launched in 2016 under the direction of HaMaarag — the national scientific organization responsible for gathering data on the state of ecosystems and biodiversity in Israel.

The aim was to evaluate changes since the 2014 oil leak. During the monitoring, scientists also discovered evidence of an earlier oil leak from 1975 that was never treated.

Among the conclusions announced at an online conference on Thursday, were that levels of crude oil were still very high in areas affected by the 1975 leak, as well as the one seven years ago, and that rehabilitation has not occurred even after nearly half a century.

A lizard covered in oil on December 16, 2014, three weeks after the huge oil spill in the Arava desert of southern Israel (photo credit: Roy Talbi/Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry)

One of the most worrying findings is that while mature acacia trees did not show long-term damage, there was only very limited germination of acacia seeds in areas polluted in 1975 and 2014. Those that did germinate failed to develop.

Acacia trees are keystone species in extreme desert environments, on which large parts of the ecosystem depend.

Due to the fragility of the reserve, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority decided following the spill to run an onsite pilot project using bacteria to break down the oil. The results were encouraging — oil concentrations decreased by 77.6 percent. Last year, the biological method was repeated throughout the reserve. But according to soil samples, the drop in oil was just 46.4% — not enough for acacia seeds to germinate.

“Without germination of acacia trees, the ecosystem is expected to undergo significant changes and may even collapse completely,” the monitoring program’s concluding report said. “The INPA will test other methods for cleaning the soil and rehabilitating ecological processes in the reserve.”

A specimen of Twisted Acacia (Acacia raddiana) growing in the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel. (Idan Shapira)

Similarly, no real recovery has been seen following the 2014 spill among wildlife groups such as insect bats and arthropods (invertebrate animals with an exoskeleton).

As the conference heard, widespread and ongoing damage is clear at all levels of the food chain.

“The ecosystem in the Evrona Reserve has been severely damaged by oil pollution,” said monitoring project coordinator Dr. Rael Horwitz. “A nearby site that was contaminated in a very similar case 46 years ago is also still extremely damaged.”

Scientists from the Maarag take samples at the Evrona Nature Reserve in southern Israel. (HaMaarag)

“Without extreme intervention in the field, the system cannot be rehabilitated. However, any intervention creates new complexities that directly and indirectly affect the ecosystem. Continued monitoring is necessary in order to monitor the effects of planned interface actions for the restoration of the reserve, on the ecosystem.”

The report said that the oil leak in Evrona was the only one to be documented in any extreme desert environment in the world so that there was no rehabilitation effort with which to compare. The steps that Israel takes will help other countries facing similar disasters.

Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy, Chief Scientist at the INPA, said, “The initial operations to pump oil and evacuate it from the reserve greatly reduced the environmental damage, but left about 145 dunams (36 acres) of land soaked in black oil.”

“The reserve’s monitoring program is the largest to take place in Israel and it encompasses most levels of the ecosystem: the soil, the bacteria in the soil, plants, invertebrates from many groups, reptiles, birds and bats.”

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Ministry assessed the damage in  Evrona at NIS 281 million ($80 million). In 2019, it reached a deal whereby the state-owned Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, also known as the Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC,) would pay NIS 100 million ($28 million) in compensation.

Last year, state prosecutors announced that the EAPC, along with five current and former senior executives at the company, could stand trial, pending a hearing, over their alleged role in the oil spill.

HaMaarag works with scientists from all over the country. Independent and privately funded, it represents a partnership between the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and the KKL Jewish National Fund. It is based at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

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