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People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ariel Schalit/AP: People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021
Activists see grim preview of worse tragedy waiting in Eilat

Tarred and shuttered: Anatomy of the oil disaster that closed Israel’s beaches

Experts call the spill Israel’s worst beach contamination in memory, and they fear much marine life has been wiped out. Nobody can say how long recovery will take

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

Main image by Ariel Schalit/AP: People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Feb. 20, 2021

An oil spill at sea that has dumped tons of tar almost all the way along Israel’s Mediterranean coast forced the authorities on Sunday to close all beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Ashkelon in the south until further notice.

Gila Gamliel, the environmental protection minister, said she hopes the cleanup will end in time for beach season to open on March 20, but neither she nor anybody else can be certain yet of the damage wreaked by the disaster.

Described by a senior Environmental Protection Ministry official as the worst catastrophe he could recall to hit Israel’s coastal sands and rocks because of its wide geographical spread, the spill has killed sea turtles and fish and was possibly responsible for the death of a juvenile fin whale that washed up on Nitzanim beach in the south of the country on Thursday.

An autopsy on Sunday found black liquid in the animal’s lungs, which surprised vets who thought the whale had been dead for two weeks before it was washed up on shore. An Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) spokeswoman pointed out that nobody knows yet when the oil spill occurred and that analysis of samples taken from the whale would help to clarify matters.

The country’s desalination plants, which provide around 75 percent of the nation’s drinking water, have not been affected, and the Agriculture Ministry said it was too early to assess damage to fish.

אכן הפקרות. דב חנין כהרגלו מדייק מה צריך לעשות

Posted by ‎מיקי חיימוביץ' – Miki Haimovich‎ on Saturday, February 20, 2021

But there is concern that close-to-shore ecosystems have been damaged irreparably. One expert thought that no more than ten percent of creatures living on rocks and in rock pools would survive having the tar scraped off them.

Environmental groups and the INPA, while lamenting the lack of proper planning and funding needed to more effectively cope with this disaster, are also trying to leverage the event to stop a controversial plan for Israel to serve as a land bridge to Europe for Gulf oil — a project they say constitutes an even graver disaster-in-waiting for Israel’s tourism and coral jewel, Eilat.

A crisis unfolding

On Wednesday, most Israelis were shut up at home because of heavy storms that brought intense downpours along the coast and snow to hilly regions. The first sign that something was amiss offshore came when the 17-meter (55-foot) dead whale appeared on the beach.

Marine veterinarians take samples from a 17-meter-long fin whale washed ashore on the Nitzanim beach, near the city of Ashkelon, February 21, 2021. (Flash90)

Then tar started washing up on northern beaches.

The first to swing into action once the storms had calmed were the coastal authorities and not-for-profit organizations, such as Ecoocean and Zalul, which sent out clarion calls for volunteers.

By the weekend, it had become clear that the tar had affected most of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline.

Some who answered the cleanup call on Saturday were hospitalized, having been taken ill after inhaling toxic fumes.

Israeli soldiers arrive to clean up the contaminated Sharon beach national park, north of Tel Aviv, on February 22, 2021. Israeli authorities warned people to keep away from the Mediterranean shore to avoid a massive tar slick, as thousands of laborers and volunteers worked to clean contaminated beaches. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

By Sunday, some 7,000 members of the public had fanned out to fill plastic bags with the sticky sludge. A few of them posted heartrending pictures of baby sea turtles blackened with goo. The chief vet of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said that an autopsy on the whale had revealed a suspicious black liquid in the lungs. The Environmental Protection and Health ministries told everyone other than registered volunteers to stay away from the beaches until further notice.

A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea; in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel; Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Until the cause can be confirmed, nobody knows whether the source of the tar was crude oil or heavy diesel fuel. The Environmental Protection Ministry secured satellite images, dated February 11, of a suspicious black patch on the sea surface some 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast and footage showing ten ships that were in the area around that time. It is cooperating with international authorities to narrow the options down in the hope of pinpointing the vessel or vessels that may have thrown fuel overboard.

It was the distance from the shore and the stormy weather that combined to break the oil down into tar.

Tar pieces from an oil spill stuck on rocks in the Mediterranean sea as it reached Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Hundreds of volunteers are taking part in a cleanup operation of Israeli shoreline as investigations are underway to determine the cause of an oil spill that threatens the beach and wildlife, at Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Yoav Ratner, who runs the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Center for Preparedness and Response to Sea Contamination and has spent much of his life involved in environmental affairs, told The Times of Israel that he could not remember a disaster that affected so many beaches at one time, although he stressed that the damage would have been far greater had the oil hit the coast before breaking down.

Asked when the beaches would be clean, he said that the focus at present was to take one day at a time.

Yoav Ratner. (Screenshot)

“The best way to clean up is by hand,” Ratner said. “We’re trying to keep mechanical means to a minimum.”

Materials designed to break down tar would only be tried after thorough checks to ensure that they would affect only the tar and not destroy any living organisms at the same time, he said.

The extent of damage to marine ecosystems just beyond the shoreline, in the rock crevices and tidal pools, is still unknown.

On Saturday, the ministry said that oil patches 200 to 500 meters (656 to 1,640 feet) out to sea were moving in the direction of Haifa, in northern Israel. By Sunday, though, it announced that this additional potential danger had passed.

But that may not mean the worst is over.

“The greatest fear is that there is a lot more tar in the sea right now that is poisoning wildlife, and still hasn’t reached us,” Dor Adelist, a marine scientist from the University of Haifa, told the Walla news site.

Tar washed up onto Tel Shikmona beach in northern Israel, February 21, 2020. (Tomer Ofri, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Ruth Yahel, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s marine ecologist, told The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, Zman Yisrael, “Imagine that you tar a roof to seal it. Imagine a whole world of living things being sealed off and suffocated by tar.”

She said she did not think that more than five to ten percent of the nearshore ecosystem’s tiny creatures would survive the peeling off of the gloop.

The Agriculture Ministry said it was still too early to assess what, if any damage, has been caused to fish.

The country’s desalination plants, which provide 75% of Israel’s drinking water, were not affected, officials said Sunday.

Avoidable tragedy?

Two burning questions go to the heart of the disaster and its repercussions: Could it have been averted, and what is being done to prevent something like it from happening again?

Neither have straightforward answers. But what is plainly central to both is the lowly position of the Environmental Protection Ministry on the governmental food chain when it comes to support and legislation.

Way back in 2008, the government decided to formulate a National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents. A cabinet decision, made in June 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, ordered that within three to five years from January 1, 2009, the ministry would fill staff positions and acquire all the equipment and sailing vessels it needed to prevent oil contaminations at sea.

Tar on a beach in Rosh Hanikra, northern Israel. (Eyal Miller, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The ministry was instructed to discuss with the Treasury any funding needs it could not meet on its own, in the run-up to the 2009 budget. And the environmental protection minister at the time (Gideon Ezra of the now-defunct Kadima party) was ordered to ensure that the plan was enshrined in law, along with the requirements of the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation, to which Israel is a signatory.

But the plan never made it into the law books. And the Finance Ministry effectively blocked the transfer of additional funds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel on Ashdod beach, February 21, 2021, after an offshore tar spill caused damage along the Mediterranean coast (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The current environmental protection minister, Gamliel, announced Sunday that she had agreed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to submit a proposal for government approval on Monday for immediate funding for beach rehabilitation and advancement of the legislation that should have been passed years ago.

But emergency funding, noted experts who discussed the crisis Sunday, is no substitute for implementing a process in an organized fashion.

Danny Morick, marine veterinarian, takes samples from a 17 meters (about 55 feet) fin whale washed up on a beach in Nitzanim Reserve, Israel,, February 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

In 2015, the Environment Ministry published proposals to integrate remote sensing technologies provided by the likes of satellites and drones into its work. In one example, it described how Canada had used satellite images and aerial photographs to identify 183 oil spills and impose fines on the perpetrators.

Information of this kind would enable Israel to create models for oil distribution in real-time and in emergencies, the document said. But the proposals were never funded.

The Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute in Haifa, northern Israel, provides satellite information on sea surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration, total suspended matter and light penetration depth, but not on oil.

Would proper satellite footage of oil have picked up on the slick and enabled the Environment Ministry to surround and deal with it before it got to the coast?

Yoav Ratner said no. Not being a European Union member, Israel does not have automatic access to the satellite imagery of the European Maritime Safety Agency, he said. But Cyprus does, and it did not pick up anything relevant. The Malta-based Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC) passes alerts on to Israel but in this case had not done so either, he said.

Very few countries have the ability to survey what is happening at sea every day, Ratner went on. In some regions, such as the Balkans, countries have banded together to share remote sensing and aerial information, but neither Israel nor its neighbors do so.

A woman holds a dead fish after she cleaned it from tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, Israel, February 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

To date, Israel had not been regarded as an area of immediate and high risk, Ratner pointed out, although the dangers were increasing.

Cooperation and exchange of information were good, he maintained, between the navy and the Transportation Ministry’s Shipping Authority.

But even with patrols, the sea is large and not every oil slick would be noticed.

“There is a lot we still need to do,” he added. “We need aerial information, more staff and a few more ships, as well as a better system of coordination between the state and the local authorities.”

Environmental organizations, many of whom came together for a zoom conference Sunday on the crisis, saw things very differently.

Arik Rosenblum, director of Ecoocean, said that his organization’s own research boat was currently out at sea checking whether any oil was still out there and that it was collaborating with the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute to carry out an aerial survey as well.

תודה גדולה לעשרות החברות והארגונים שנרתמים למשימה. אסון חירום אקולוגי פוקד אותנו ושיתוף הפעולה מעלה אופטימיות…

Posted by ‎Ecoocean – למען הסביבה הימית‎ on Sunday, February 21, 2021

He added that before the spill, his organization had provided professional emergency response training to 20 people in each coastal authority so that they would be able to train other volunteers in the event of a crisis and assist the authorities as well.

“This time, too, the public is doing the government’s dirty work,” said Ya’ara Peretz, who is responsible for marine issues at Green Course, mainly made up of student activists.

Warning for Eilat?

Rachel Azaria (Courtesy)

Rachel Azaria, who chairs Life and Environment, an umbrella organization representing 130 not-for-profit green groups, called the disaster “a promo for a catastrophe that could be 250 times as bad” if an agreement signed between the state-owned Europe-Asia Pipeline Co., formerly the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Co., and MED-RED Land Bridge, a joint Israeli-UAE venture, is not stopped.

The controversial deal provides for oil and oil-related products from the Persian Gulf to be shipped to Israel and offloaded at the Red Sea port of Eilat, before being transported, overland, via an aging pipeline to Ashkelon on the southern Mediterranean coast. From there, the oil is to be re-loaded onto ships that will sail up Israel’s coast on the way to southern European markets.

Coral reefs near Eilat in 2019. (Maoz Fine)

Environmental organizations and well over 200 scientists have implored the government to put a stop to the project, out of concern that it will endanger Eilat’s world-renowned coral reefs, and possibly also those of neighboring Aqaba in Jordan and the Sinai peninsula of Egypt.

As the zoom conference took place, dozens of people demonstrated against the oil plan in Eilat.

Demonstrators protest against plans to use Israel as a land bridge for the transport of Gulf oil to European markets, February 21, 2021. (Screenshot)

Just hours before that, the INPA issued a statement also opposing the MED-RED agreement.

“The Nature and Parks Authority expresses a real concern based on past experience, that transporting hazardous materials, in large quantities, involves environmental danger, with the risk of accidents and failures, technical and human, likely to increase as the volume of marine traffic increases,” it said.

It added: “The Authority recalls that human errors and technical failures in the EAPC infrastructure have caused serious damage to the environment both in the far and recent past, including oil spills in the Gulf of Eilat and Evrona in the 1970s, in Evrona (in southern Israel) again in 2014 and in the Zin streambed in 2011.”

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

Tami Ganot, of the legal advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din, echoed the calls of others at the conference for a national plan for marine preparedness and response to be enshrined in law, so that implementation would have a better chance and funding would be provided. A Climate Law and a Marine Zones Law were also critical, she said.

This picture taken on February 9, 2021 shows an aerial view of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company’s (EAPC) oil terminal at Israel’s southern Red Sea port city of Eilat.(MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The latter has been stuck for years between the Environmental Protection and  Energy ministries. The Energy Ministry still uses a 1950s petroleum law to grant oil and gas licenses, without the involvement of the Environment Ministry. Building and planning law does require environmental input, but applies on land and only a few miles into the sea.

“There is no accountability. Very narrow interests can do what they want,” Ganot told The Times of Israel. “And there’s no active supervision.”

Right now, said the Zalul organization’s CEO Maya Jacobs, the lack of proper planning means “we have a crisis that has closed almost our entire Mediterranean coast to the public, caused inestimable damage, and, at the very least, could have been handled far more efficiently.”

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