Negev Desert oil spill in Israel will take years to clean up

AP photo of cleanup efforts at Arava oil spill

Oil spills are bad enough themselves. When they occur in fragile ecological regions like Israel’s Arava desert, they can be catastrophic.  Such is the case of the recent Negev Desert-Arava oil spill, which occurred as a result of a break in a large oil pipeline during renovation work.

This spill, occurring in early December, caused an estimated 600,000 gallons or 3 million liters of crude oil to run in virtual torrents through some of the Arava Valley’s most unique desert nature reserves. The spill has caused incalculable damage to fragile desert ecosystems. Environmentalists estimate that cleaning up this oil spill will cost more than $7.6 million USD to clean up and take years to do so.

This recent spill is not unique to the area, as other large spills have occurred during the shadowy history of this controversial pipeline.

In 2011, a massive jet fuel spill occurred when a tractor struck a portion of the Eilat Ashkelon pipeline, causing more than 1.5 million liters of aviation jet fuel to spill into the Nahal Zin stream, severely damaging a nearby nature reserve.

That spill alone took weeks to clean up; and resulting damage to the nature reserve and its fragile ecosystem has never been fully corrected. At that time, the Nahal Zin spill was referred to as “Israel’s worst ecological disaster.” So has the recent oil spill as well.

The Eilat Ashkelon oil pipeline was originally constructed in the 1960’s to bring oil purchased from Iran to refineries located on Israel’s Mediterranean seacoast. With Israel still in a state of war with Egypt, Israeli oil tankers and other ocean vessels could not use the Suez Canal.

The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, which originally constructed the oil pipeline when Israel still had diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran, has enjoyed a “veil of secrecy” that has been so tight and far reaching that numerous incidents of oil leaks and subsequent environmental and public health damage have been quietly covered up; until now anyway.

A legal petition has  been filed by the Israel Union for Environmental Defence with the High Court of Justice that asks that the pipeline company be forced to  release all available information on the oil spill; and to release all the audits and critical reports written about the company that were banned from publication by the military censor since a confidentiality order went into effect in 1968.

A January 5 article in Haaretz reported that activities by the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company have been kept secret under a gag order that is no longer relevant due to Israeli/Iranian relations being severed in 1979.

Lawsuits against the pipeline company are now in the process of being filed on damage caused to the Evrona Nature Reserve,  the communal settlement of Be’er Ora (where the oil spill took place); and by environmental activist Yoel Hadida, who demands “that the Israeli public get 820 million shekels ($210 million USD) in compensation for the damage done to public lands and natural assets, as well as 151.5 million shekels ($39 million USD) in compensation to area residents.”

Whether or not these lawsuits are successful, the damage caused by this recent pipeline rupture incident will have a serious effect on the Arava Desert environment and health of area residents for years to come.

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