Environmentalists have proposed a new government body that might head off ecological catastrophes on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The new agency could set policy more efficiently by streamlining the powers currently shared by several different authorities.
Two years ago an explosion sank BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The initial blast claimed twelve lives. But that was just the first tragedy. A nightmare scenario unfolded in the weeks and months that followed. The rig sank and crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico unabated from the open wellhead.
By some estimates the flow was 53,000 barrels per day. BP finally capped the wellhead nearly three months later. Unfortunately, success came only after 4.9 million barrels of oil had devastated the coastline of four US states.
As Israel ramps up offshore drilling for natural gas, advocates are eyeing a system that would prevent these disasters on their own coast. The Zalul Environmental Association and the Department of Marine Geosciences at Haifa University offered the proposal for the “Sea and Shore Authority”. They recognized that the power to set maritime policy is currently split between several different ministries.
For example, the Environment Ministry now administers pollution prevention programs. The Agriculture Ministry supervises fishing. And the Health Ministry controls water quality. These authorities would remain intact. However, the new agency would oversee them, according to attorney Nadia Mogilevsky of Haifa University.
The proposal could garner significant opposition in the Knesset. It would necessarily appropriate funding currently allocated to existing government offices. But the proponents believe they can convince Knesset members that Israel’s economic dependence on the Mediterranean Sea necessitates responsible management.
The timing may be just right. Several desalination facilities have been proposed, including several on man-made islands. The brine they discharge back into the ocean creates salt fields that are harmful to wildlife. Chemicals used in the desalination process pollute the area. And the enormous intake pipes suck in marine life.
Israeli energy companies will soon ramp up natural gas drilling. A pipeline leak or infrastructure disaster, perhaps like the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, would be catastrophic. Toxic carbons would permeate the sea, decimating marine life.
Also, Israel continues to lay undersea communication cables. That activity, combined with commercial fishing and port enlargement, has disturbed sandy habitat and affected fish populations.
Israel is the biggest polluter in the Med
Plus, Zalul’s 2007 State of the Sea Report found that Israel is the biggest polluter in the Eastern Mediterranean. One hundred and forty tons of heavy metals flow to the sea every year from Israeli fields, towns and factories. This woeful list includes pesticides, arsenic and even cyanide.
The Environment Ministry is doing what it can with a limited budget. It works conjunctively with the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute to monitor the shores. And soon the Ministry will broaden the project’s scope to include deep water.
Still, the risks from desalination, pollution and drilling remain. Even military actions have unintended consequences for ocean health. An Israeli airstrike hit a Lebanese power plant in June 2006, dumping 15,000 tons of oil into the Mediterranean. Two-thirds of Lebanon’s coastline was affected. The spill was bad timing for Green sea turtles, which begin hatching in July. Most of the hatchlings were lost. Endangered Bluefin tuna were killed in scores. And Lebanese fishermen lost their livelihoods.
Protecting the shore and ocean makes both environmental and economic sense. The Mediterranean provides much of Israel’s revenue. One need only look at the industrial activity that occurs in and around the Sea.
So let us consider the threats that linger from decades of lax government regulation. What will become of those sandy shores when the ocean churns with pollution? Will visitors still flock to Tel Aviv? Will sea turtles return to their natal beaches? Perhaps a Sea and Shore Authority would keep the storms at bay on that dusky horizon. And maybe let a little sun shine in.
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