The Israel Defense Forces and Nature and Parks Authority on Saturday said the military will assist in cleaning up a major tar spill off of Israel’s coast, which an expert warned could be one of Israel’s worst-ever environmental disasters.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Nature and Parks Authority head Shaul Goldstein have agreed that “starting this week, thousands of IDF soldiers will assist workers and volunteers for the Nature and Parks Authority in mapping areas damaged by the tar pollution, cleaning beaches and in the removal” of pollutants, according to a joint statement.
The cause of the spill — involving dozens of tons of tar spilled at sea — was not definitively clear and was under investigation. Reports of the pollution first emerged on Thursday when a 17-meter dead baby fin whale washed up on Israel’s coast, along with other wildlife.
Dr. Dor Adelist, a marine scientist from the University of Haifa, told the Walla news site, “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.”
He said the spill was the result of an accident on a ship, but that the vessel has not yet been identified. He maintained the spill was the worst disaster of its kind in over 40 years.
Goldstein, of the Parks Authority, called it Israel’s “worst environmental disaster in a decade.”
President Reuven Rivlin on Saturday called for immediate national action.
“The images of pollution on our beaches are awful,” he said.
“Now is the time for an urgent national plan before we face an unprecedented ecological disaster,” added the president.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the spill “a severe incident.”
Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said an oil spill had been identified about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast a week ago, and that one of 10 vessels that were in the area at the time may have been responsible.
From as north as Haifa and down south to Ashkelon near Gaza, black strips could be seen along the Mediterranean coastline. At Gador Nature Reserve near the northern city of Hadera, the tar smeared fish, turtles, and other sea creatures.
Earlier Saturday, a number of people who volunteered to participate in a cleanup operation of the massive tar spill were hospitalized after inhaling apparently toxic fumes.
Several thousand people came to beaches along Israel’s Mediterranean coast to help with the clean-up of the spill. But following the injuries, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority called on people to stay away from the beaches.
“At this stage, we ask the public not to arrive independently at the beaches for cleanup,” the authority said in a statement. “Cleaning requires the use of appropriate protective equipment to maintain health and the orderly evacuation [of the remnants] to a suitable site.”
The authority said it was currently engaged in mapping the areas affected by the tar. “We are preparing for a broad operation,” it added.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said Saturday that on an observation flight, tar spills were found moving in the direction of several beaches in Haifa. The affected areas were between 200 and 500 meters (656 and 1,640 feet) from the shore, and the ministry said it was considering appropriate treatment.
The “tar pollution,” said the ministry, impacts about 160 kilometers (100 miles) of the coastal strip, from Rosh Hanikra in Israel’s far north to Ashkelon in the south.
On Friday, Gamliel said the spill was a major disaster, and that authorities were searching for those responsible.
“This is hazard of a magnitude we have not seen in years. We are doing everything in order to find those responsible for the destruction, and are preparing for the difficult and long task of rehabilitating the beaches and preventing further injury to animals,” Gamliel said.