Two years have passed since Israel’s coastline was devastated by tar from an oil spill at sea, but the Environmental Protection Ministry says it has yet to see any of the promised money to prepare better for the next marine disaster.
With no satellite or other robust civilian monitoring, Israel was taken by surprise on February 18, 2021, when tar began washing onto its Mediterranean coastline, following stormy weather.
During the following days, it became clear that beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the far north to Nitzanim in the south had been contaminated, leaving globs of tar all over the sand and shallows and dead or badly injured wildlife.
In the immediate wake of the leak, the sale of Mediterranean fish was temporarily suspended and beaches were closed.
Thousands of volunteers rallied over a period of many days to help clean up 1,400 tons of the tar, which was later traced to a leak at sea from a 19-year-old, Syrian-owned ship that was not insured.
The cleanup operation, which was to last a year in total, dominated the headlines for days.
Then-environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel toured the damage with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A special committee of ministry directors-general was established to investigate how best to deal with maritime disaster scenarios and better prepare for their prevention in the future.
The government approved an emergency NIS 45 million (then worth $13.8 million), most of which went to the local authorities, which are directly responsible for all beaches except those administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
It also ordered the Environmental Protection and Finance ministries to discuss an allocation of NIS 25 million (then worth $7,575) for the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Fund for the Prevention of Marine Pollution.
But according to Rani Amir, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s National Unit for the Protection of the Marine Environment, that sum never materialized and no additional funds were ever received.
Just days after the tar was discovered, Amir told the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee that to be better prepared for a future event, his unit needed an early warning system, two coastal stations, each with a staff of ten — one in the north and one in the south (in addition to an existing one in Eilat, on the Red Sea) — an additional 20 people to staff the new stations, two ships (at least one equipped to pump oil out of the sea), and smaller boats and pumping equipment.
He told the committee: “In 2008 we asked for 10 staff positions and received none. In 2014, we received none. In 2016, we were supposed to get 11; in 2019 we were supposed to get eight. We didn’t get any.”
Last month, Amir told the Times of Israel, “There’s been no increase in personnel [since then]. Thirty-three people work in the ministry on marine protection nationwide, including secretaries and two students. We still need another 20 posts, at least.”
Money in the ministry’s Marine Pollution Prevention Fund, established in 1979 to cover all aspects of the marine and coastal environment, is dwindling, as the demands outstrip the supply of cash from sources such as shipping fees and pollution fines, Amir went on.
At the time of the tar spill, the fund had NIS 121 million ($36.3 million) on its books. That figure, Amir explained, had dropped to NIS 62.8 million ($17.2 million) by the end of 2022 after the unit bought a ship with sophisticated computerization on board and replaced the equipment that was used during the tar event. The ship is based in Haifa.
“If there’s an event tomorrow similar to the [tar incident] in 2021, we could deal with it. We’ve proven that,” he went on. “But if we’re talking about a bigger event, with liquid oil, I don’t think we’d be able to deal with it well with the staff we’ve got. We’d need many more people working around the clock.”
The reality stands in contrast to the recommendations in November 2021 of the committee of ministry directors-general.
They said the money had to be found to acquire “strategic equipment,” boats, and fund additional staff positions.
They also called on the government housing administration to provide properties for new response stations in Haifa and Ashkelon and upgrade the existing Eilat station.
According to Amir, though, the Eilat station has not been upgraded, and two new stations on the Mediterranean coast — one at the Haifa port in northern Israel and another in Ashkelon on the southern coast, were not stations but rather “temporary emergency storerooms” for existing equipment. “It’s not enough,” he said.
Amir added that NIS 160 million ($44 million) would be needed to buy all the necessary equipment, but that neither funds for that nor manpower featured in the current government’s coalition agreements.
Other than cash, the unit needs the government to pass a bill that anchors the authority of the Environmental Protection Ministry to manage an oil disaster and order state bodies such as local coastal authorities to formulate and regularly update their marine preparedness plans, Amir said.
He said bills had been presented in 2008, 2012 and 2016, to no avail.
The latest attempt (in Hebrew) had attracted many comments from the public and was currently the subject of “complex” discussions involving many ministries, Amir explained.
The bill itself was part of the government’s coalition agreements, but it had not yet reached the Knesset Law Committee.
“The Environmental Protection Ministry is doing the best it can, but with its hands tied behind its back,” said Arik Rosenblum, executive director of EcoOcean, a not-for-profit organization.
EcoOcean has trained 1,000 volunteers to deal with marine emergencies, a figure it is hoping to double.
Until last month, it depended solely on donations.
Last month, the Environmental Protection Ministry agreed to give it NIS 1.25 million ($340,000) annually for five years to cover half the budget for training and retaining long-term volunteers.
Once an oil spill preparedness bill becomes law, the state will fully fund the initiative, Rosenblum explained.
EcoOcean wants to collaborate with other marine volunteer organizations in the Mediterranean area and is currently in talks with a Moroccan not-for-profit, he added.
The tar spill took place during a period in which there was no signed agreement between Israel and the European Maritime Safety Agency for satellite images of suspected oil leaks. As a result, it took time for the Israeli authorities to get hold of the images they needed.
That, according to Amir, had been resolved.
Furthermore, a tender had been held and a winning company was chosen to fly over anything suspicious at sea and drop oil dispersal materials if necessary.
But the missing part of the jigsaw was access to the Defense Ministry’s early warning data, and that was taking time.
Yigal Ben-Ari, head of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority’s marine branch, said: “The big thing is early identification and the cleaning of as much as possible before it gets to the beach.”
The Environmental Protection Ministry is waiting for compensation for the spill from the London-based International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund, which approved Israel’s request for damages in July 2021.
A spokesman would only say, “Several lawsuits have already been submitted and are under consideration.”