Tar still washing up onto Israel’s beaches six months after oil spill

Israel Nature and Parks Authority hopes to finish the delicate job of hand-cleaning rocks by year’s end

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

New chunks of tar washed up onto the Palmachim beach in central Israel, six months after an oil leak in the Mediterranean Sea, August 26, 2021. (Shlomi Amran,  Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
New chunks of tar washed up onto the Palmachim beach in central Israel, six months after an oil leak in the Mediterranean Sea, August 26, 2021. (Shlomi Amran, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Tar is still washing up onto Israel’s coastal sands six months after an oil leak from a tanker in the Mediterranean covered most of the country’s beaches in the sticky black goo, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority reported Thursday, providing pictures from Palmachim beach south of Tel Aviv.

Specially trained INPA staff and workers from northern Israel are still working by hand to remove the oily substance from rocks in nature reserves and national parks in northern Israel, from Rosh Hanikra on the northern border through Shikmona Dor, Habonim beaches and more.

Yigal Ben-Ari, director of the INPA’s Marine Unit, said that some 55 kilometers (34 miles) of beach have been cleared in INPA-operated areas so far.

Another 10 kilometers (six miles) of rock and coastal ledges still need to be scraped by hand in what Ben-Ari described as “hard work in difficult conditions of severe heat and humidity and sea conditions that determine the location and pace of work.”

He added, “I estimate that we will finish the work by the end of the year and hope that we will succeed in cleaning most of the rocks of tar.” But, he noted that “this morning we even saw an additional rise in tar at Palmachim National Park.”

Scraping tar off rocks at Rosh Hanikra, August 26, 2021. (Yigal Ben-Ari, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Israel was taken by surprise on February 18 when massive amounts of tar began washing onto its Mediterranean coastline following stormy weather, along with the corpse of a fin whale some 17 meters (55 feet) long.

Over the following days, it became clear that beaches all along its Mediterranean coast had been contaminated and that wildlife had paid a heavy price.

In the wake of the leak, the sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and beaches were closed, with the first 17 locations reopening on March 7. Thousands of volunteers rallied over many days to help with the cleanup.

Officials dealing with marine issues said they could not remember an incident with such a wide geographical spread. The long-term damage to ecosystems still remains to be seen.

Evidence from an investigation by the Environmental Protection Ministry at the time indicated that the leak of tens of tons of crude oil took place between February 1 and 2, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) out at sea, and came from the Syrian-owned tanker Emerald, which was not insured. The London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund has agreed in principle to pay damages.

Earlier this week, a massive oil spill caused by leakage from a power plant inside one of Syria’s oil refineries spread northwards along that country’s coast.

Maya Jacobs, head of the Israeli marine environmental organization Zalul, said that there was “no such thing as oil without disasters” and that the Syrian spill was “just another warning about oil pollution in our region.”

Zalul and a raft of other green organizations are trying to halt a deal signed last year between the United Arab Emirates and a UAE-Israel consortium to use southern Israel as a land bridge for Gulf states to get their oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

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