Thousands flee their homes for fear of pollution as gas field goes online

Venting and checks at Leviathan offshore rig worry coastal residents, who remain wary of assurances the activities are safe

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Israeli environmentalists protest against Noble Energy's gas rig flushing test, outside the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. Sign reads 'Don't poison us, now is the time to wake up.' (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli environmentalists protest against Noble Energy's gas rig flushing test, outside the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. Sign reads 'Don't poison us, now is the time to wake up.' (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel’s newest gas rig sprang into action Tuesday morning, and as it did thousands of Israelis left their homes, claiming that they faced dangerous levels of pollution.

Gas started flowing from the mammoth Leviathan offshore field at 2 a.m., according to Maya Speer, spokeswoman for the consortium in charge of drilling, Leviathan Partners. Then, at 8 a.m., workers started the three-hour “venting” process to release the nitrogen that was in the pipes, test the rig, and prepare it for the start of full operation later in the day.

It marked “a historic turning point” for the Israeli economy, said Yossi Abu, CEO of Delek Drilling, one of the consortium members. “For the first time since its establishment, Israel is now an energy powerhouse, able to supply all its energy needs and gain energy independence,” he declared.

But as Abu expressed joy, many Israelis who live along the coastline south of Haifa remained distrustful of the safety reassurances they have received from the consortium and the government.

They expressed alarm at the test procedure and left for the day, some heading to a protest in Tel Aviv. They claimed that just after the gas pipes were flushed out, more pollutants would be released to the atmosphere than in a year or two of normal gas production.

The Leviathan gas platform, offshore Israel (Albatross)

People started meeting at assembly points near the coastline soon after sunrise, determined to drive in a convoy to Tel Aviv before the pollutants were released.

“I have a little girl, and I’m not prepared for her to breathe in this pollution,” said Osnat Revzner at a Caesarea gas station, as she got her daughter settled in the car and ready for their journey.

She acknowledged the state’s heath reassurances, but said: “We don’t trust the government.” Revzner was full of foreboding about the test. “Maybe we won’t see the results now, but it involves cancerous substances, and will affect us in the future,” she said.

Chava Kelner, who lives in Caesarea, said she felt like she was witnessing a collective “panic attack,” which is happening because “nobody knows what’s going to take place here.” Leaders of the Shomrei Habayit activist group, which coordinated the evacuation, said it knew of thousands of people who left their homes, but did not yet have a precise figure.

Hadar Kahani in Caesarea, Israel, on December 31, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Hadar Kahani, who lives in the Ein Hod artists’ village, was crouching on the roof of her car, fixing a protest sign in position. “It’s like we are part of an experiment we didn’t sign up for,” she said, adding: “We don’t have any trust in regulators and the authorities. We feel we can’t trust anyone.”

Ilana Reches, 79, was sticking posters on her car, ready to drive with her 75-year-old brother Uri Philips. “The materials being released are cancerous and poisonous,” she said. “We’re old, but I’m really concerned for the young.”

Reches, who lives on Kibbutz Maayan Tzvi, added: “In a few years’ time people will be sick and we’ll ask why we didn’t do more.” She said that the test should have been stopped, and that the rig should have been built far from the coastline, not in its current location, 10 kilometers from the shore.

Most of the evacuees said that as well as avoiding the pollution, they hoped their actions would focus national attention on the rig’s location, and what they claim is an insufficient level of supervision over its operations. “We’re taking care of ourselves and also trying to tell the government that it needs to take better care of citizens,” said Alon Harel, who left his Pardes Hanna home with two children.

He said that the battle by environmental groups, local municipalities and protesters to have the rig located farther out to sea had failed, but he hoped that protests will make the government reluctant to allow more rigs close to the shore.

Ilana Reches, right, and her brother Uri Philips in Caesarea, Israel, on December 31, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Igal Oren stood looking at the chimneys of the coal-burning Hadera power plant, which are close to the Caesarea assembly point. He said that the pollution emerging from them represented a “drop in the ocean” compared to what he expected from the gas rig — today, and in general.

“Israel will never be the same again,” he said.

Oren, a 63-year-old businessman, said that he had been determined to leave his Sdot Yam home since the moment he heard about the test — and will emigrate if his fears of long-term pollution from the rig are confirmed. “I wouldn’t just leave Sdot Yam, I would leave Israel,” he said.

Oren added: “I won’t gamble with my health, and what’s happening here is a gamble.”

Some people watched the evacuation bemused. Yehuda Amar, a local man his fifties, sat inside a cafe with a view of the Caesarea meeting point sipping coffee, and said: “It’s hysteria, pure and simple.”

Igal Oren with a chimney of Hadera’s power plant in the background, in Caesarea, on December 31, 2019. (Nathan Jeffay/Times of Israel)

Speer, the spokeswoman for the drilling consortium behind Leviathan, declined to comment about Tuesday’s evacuation and protest. The Environmental Protection Ministry said that activities on the rig posed no danger. It released a statement saying: “According to the opinions of all the experts there is not expected to be any danger to the public during the pipe-flushing.”

In October, a scientific journal published an academic study that found that environmental impact assessments carried out by Noble Energy for the Leviathan platform’s general operations grossly underestimated the quantity of polluting emissions, contained “a series of flaws,” relied on “overly simplistic” models and should be redone more professionally.

The findings were rejected by Noble Energy, which said that it was installing technology on the platform that would keep emissions close to zero.

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