01/10/2012 23:10

Erdan appeals to PM to create public committee on natural resources.
Talkbacks (3)

Environmental and tourism proponents on Tuesday slammed the Dead Sea deal that the Finance Ministry made with Israel Chemicals last week.

The criticism came during a Knesset Finance Committee session being held on the issue a week and a half after the cabinet approved the deal, which stipulated that the company must pay for 80 percent of the southern basin’s full salt harvest and increase royalty payments to the government from 5% to 10%. The salt must be harvested to prevent flooding that would endanger area hotels.

The meeting also came a day after the cabinet rejected, for the second time, a comprehensive Dead Sea rehabilitation bill drafted by Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) and put forward by MK Dov Henin (Hadash). The proposed rehabilitation would have aided in curbing plunging water levels in the northern basin, protecting local biodiversity and restructuring the system that manages mineral extraction.

At the meeting, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan and Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov expressed their vehement opposition to the deal, while Erdan said that the agreement with Israel Chemicals would damage the Dead Sea in the long term.

“The Dead Sea is not a bath full of minerals for the maximization of profits,” Erdan added.

Henin accused the government of “abandoning the Dead Sea – environmentally, socially and economically,” and charged that while the Dead Sea producers earned a lot of money from their enterprises, almost none of this reached the public.

While his rejected bill would have cost the government money up front, the future costs from the Dead Sea’s destruction would prove to be much greater, Henin argued. Due to the low royalty rates, the agreement even encourages Israel Chemicals to expand its pumping in the northern basin, which creates serious problems – like an increase in sinkholes and other environmental hazards, according to the Hadash MK.

“The Israeli government does not understand that this is a critical issue,” he said.

“In the future, others will investigate how the state abandoned the Dead Sea to extreme deterioration for the benefit of captains of industry. And all this occurred in darkness, circumventing the Knesset.”

Outside the committee session, green group Friends of the Earth Middle East expressed continued disappointment with both the Israel Chemicals agreement and Monday’s decision to reject Henin’s proposal, even blaming the acceptance of the agreement for the rejection of the more comprehensive bill.

“This is a fatal blow to the Dead Sea,” said Michal Sagiv, project coordinator for Dead Sea Rescue at Friends of the Earth.

Instead of siding with the public to back a more “comprehensive solution” for the Dead Sea, the government chose to side with “the interests of tycoons,” she added, noting that over 16,000 Israelis had signed an online petition – backed by Friends of the Earth, Adam Teva V’Din and activist organization Avaaz – calling on ministers to back the bill in the past couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, in an effort to protect not only the Dead Sea but the rest of the nation’s resources, Erdan sent a personal letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, demanding the establishment of a public committee focused on better protecting the country’s natural assets.

Among the committee’s responsibilities would be reviewing the exploitation of natural resources, as well as examining the payments the state and public receive from the cultivation of these assets, Erdan wrote. The body would then submit its recommendations.

According to Erdan, such a committee would have been relevant to last week’s approval of the Dead Sea deal, as well as many other situations in which private entities are making profits by operating their businesses using public, natural resources. The committee, he said, would include representatives from all the government ministries to which the subject was relevant.

“There is no justification for a subject as widespread as this, with ramifications for a variety of sectors, to be investigated and managed by one governmental office or another, which has no vision or understanding of all the interests that are affected by the exploitation of natural resources,” he wrote.

Nadav Shemer contributed to this report.