Two desalination plants faked water quality data to cut costs

Two desalination plants faked water quality data to cut costs

Energy Ministry inquiry reveals that Sorek plant manipulated chloride amounts before daily samples were taken; workers at Palmachim facility doctored lab reports

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

Inside the Sorek A Desalination Plant, November 2015. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)
Inside the Sorek A Desalination Plant, November 2015. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

Two of Israel’s five water desalination plants tricked the government over a period of 18 months into thinking that the drinking water they were producing met permitted levels of chloride, an inquiry by the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources has revealed.

Both plants are south of Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast.

The Sorek plant, the country’s biggest and one of the largest in the world to operate a reverse osmosis system, let levels of chloride — the main ingredient in sea salt — exceed four times what was specified in its franchise agreement in order to save what amounted to NIS 12 million ($3.4 million) until its cover was blown.

At the Palmachim plant, there were “tens of cases” in which chloride levels exceeded the limits by around 20 percent, an excess concealed behind doctored reports.

An inquiry committee headed by Energy Ministry director general Udi Adiri called in its report, published last month, for “effective and deterrent enforcement” and a “significant financial sanction” to be applied in the case of the Sorek plant, which had not only benefited from savings but was also liable for an estimated NIS 46 million ($13 million) in fines within the terms of its contract with the state.

The committee recommended turning the Palmachim case over to the “authorized enforcement authorities” for criminal investigation.

Asleep at the wheel

The report also lambasted the state for not taking its own responsibilities as regulator seriously enough. It had failed to use tools such as random water quality checks and more in-depth monitoring, and officials had “relied more than necessary” on the credibility of the desalination plants’ reports, failing to compare the data supplied by the plants with information from other sources.

“Without taking away from the seriousness of the findings it’s important to stress that the water provided met all the requirements of the Health Ministry and did not pose any health hazard,” Adiri told a press conference.

Safe to drink? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drinks a glass of water at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool via AP)

The chlorides — which reached 90 milligrams per liter at Sorek while the maximum level agreed with the state was 20 milligrams per liter — came nowhere near the Health Ministry’s standard of 400 milligrams per liter, above which such water could endanger public health.

Has damage been caused?

That the deception could go on for so long raises questions not only about the management of Israel’s water resources but about the wisdom of plans to use desalinated water to replenish natural sweet-water sources such as the Sea of Galilee.

Environmental activists insist that the double-dealing may already have caused damage.

The legal advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din said in a statement that high salinity in water coming out of the plants could corrode the pipes taking drinking water into homes, lead to higher pipe maintenance costs, eventually reach agricultural fields where it could damage soil and groundwater, and cost consumers more to boil water, as salty water requires more energy to boil.

The statement lamented the fact that Israelis were dependent on private facilities for the production of their water, which, it said, as discovered by the probe, put profits before water quality.

Udi Adiri, Director General of the Israeli Energy Ministry. (YouTube screenshot)

The inquiry into all five desalination plants, which began in May, was sparked earlier this year after complaints about yellow drinking water were received from residents of the central city of Holon, which had just begun to receive desalinated water from Sorek and Palmachim.

A review of water quality data collected by the government-owned Mekorot water company, which works under the Water Authority at the Energy Ministry, highlighted discrepancies.

The ‘morning sample procedure’

The inquiry discovered a system at the Sorek plant known to workers as the “morning sample procedure.” Just before the daily water sample was taken, workers would manually and temporarily alter the procedure for filtering out the salts so that the chloride content would appear to be within limits. The reality, said the report, was that the water supplied for most of the rest of the day was different from that which featured in the daily tests and reports.

“This action was carried out with the full knowledge of the plant’s management,” the report continued,

The management knew full well that chloride levels could increase during the day but chose to “turn a blind eye” rather than monitor the possibility. The point? “To demonstrate fulfillment of the agreement’s requirements with the state while reducing the plant’s operational costs.”

At Palmachim, laboratory reports were altered, as became evident when the inquiry committee obtained the originals.

The committee’s recommendations include having all the plants sample water quality three times a day rather than once daily, and seven times a week; ensuring that the plants use only authorized laboratories and that some tests are done externally; requiring monthly reports to the authorities to be signed off by a plant’s director general or deputy director general for operations; carrying out random checks of water quality more often; upgrading computer systems to better enable comparison of different data sets and identification of irregularities; and better coordination between the government bodies involved in desalination.

General view of the desalination plant in Ashdod, August 7, 2005. Edi Israel /Flash90)

To meet the challenges of reduced rainfall and multi-year droughts as the climate warms, Israel has built five desalination plants — in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Palmachim, Sorek and Hadera. These supply around 80 percent of the country’s drinking water. Mekorot, the national water company, receives the water from the plants and channels it into the national water carrier.

A sixth plant, adjacent to the existing Sorek facility, and a seventh, in the western Galilee, are are in pre-construction stages.

IDE Technologies, jointly and equally owned by ALFA Partners and Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Group, owns 50% shares in the Hadera and Ashkelon plants. IDE and Hutchison Water held the franchise to build and operate the Sorek facility. Last year, IDE sold its share to Dan Capital Investments and Infrastructures Ltd., in order to be able to compete for the tender to finance, construct, and operate Sorek 2 for 25 years. The other bidders are Hutchison Water and a partnership of Afcon, Acciona and Allied Investments.

A statement from IDE Technology said, “We welcome the committee’s recommendations to improve the state’s monitoring and control mechanisms for desalination facilities and rest assured that such control will work for the benefit of the consumer and also improve the service provided.”

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