By LIAT COLLINS 12/11/2014

When I hear words like “wounds” and “scars” my first association is not with quarries, but following a tour to the Machtesh Ramon area in the South last week, they no longer seem out of place. The Jerusalem Press Club trip was organized by the Quarry Rehabilitation Fund, which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of National Infrastructure, Energy and Water. There are about 1,000 disused quarries in Israel. Many turn into illegal dumping sites, creating ongoing safety hazards and ecological harm, and nearly all of them are ugly blemishes in some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes.

That’s where the fund steps in. Established in 1978, it uses the income from fees imposed on the operators as a percentage of the price of the quarried materials and turns the abandoned quarries into parks, recreation sites and open-air geological museums, where visitors can learn about interesting rock formations and strata.

The trip focused on the work of the fund in the Ramon Crater area, a unique geological phenomenon that offers a spectacular window to the past 200 million years. Standing at the lookout point outside the visitors’ center in Mitzpe Ramon feels like standing at the edge of the world – the stark, biblical beauty of the desert lying below. This is true Genesis country, and it is not surprising that local residents who once relied on the quarries for jobs now depend on eco-tourism.

It is in this spot that I first heard the phrase “mortal wound” to describe the damage caused by 40 years of quarrying in the area, but the words were repeated throughout the trip from site to site: the park where children collect colored sand in bottles; the feeding station where a cow carcass lies on an edge for vultures to feast on; and an area where a recreational pond with attractive islands – an artificial oasis – is being carefully prepared in the desert.

I listened, learned and imagined. But my heart was a few kilometers to the South. And it was breaking.

Our tour took place on December 4, as the extent of the previous day’s environmental disaster was becoming apparent. Millions of liters of oil had poured out of a pipe belonging to the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) into the Evrona nature reserve.

The incident proved yet again that Israel is excellent at responding to emergencies. I wish the same energy and creativity went into preventing them. A clean-up campaign was quickly launched – with the immediate aim of halting the flow of black rivulets heading for the acutely sensitive Red Sea ecosystem, especially with the threat of flash flooding in the area.

Many options for continuing the clean-up work are now being considered, including the use of oil-eating bacteria, for example.

For me, the incident caused a series of flashbacks to exactly 20 years ago when, as The Jerusalem Post’s environment reporter, I repeated the warnings of experts after a fire broke out at a 95,000-ton EAPC fuel tank.

The company is literally a law unto itself, enjoying extraterritorial status and not bound by local environmental or business licensing regulations.

“The extraterritorial status is a remnant from the British Mandate, and it’s time to realize the British have left the country,” I quoted then-Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel spokeswoman Orit Nevo in a news item published on December 5, 1994.

The Environment Ministry opened a criminal investigation, I wrote on December 14, 1994, “into why the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company did not immediately report a fire two weeks ago or a similar incident six months ago.”

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the EAPC enjoys the protection of censorship laws preventing coverage of its work. This is partly for historical reasons, stemming from the days when the oil in the pipeline flowed from Iran in the time of the shah, and partly to prevent hostile elements from causing harm to the infrastructure in acts of terror or sabotage. It means, however, that there is no transparency or external accountability.

What goes on in the company is hidden behind a screen as dark and slippery as the oil itself.

“I’VE BEEN through the desert on a horse with no name,” sang the band America in the early 1970s. I can better that. I have been through the desert on a camel called Grisha.

In October 1994, I took a few days’ break from the worries of day-to-day environmental reporting and followed part of the Nabatean Spice Route some 17 centuries after the Romans parked a reroute sign on the road.

We started out in the Machtesh Ramon area, where I discovered that acacia trees were Grisha’s equivalent of chocolate, as well as the preferred dish of the Negev gazelles.

The top of a camel is not a comfortable place to see the world, but it does offer an excellent vantage point. Looking down from Grisha’s hump one morning I came the nearest I have ever come to realizing my dream of seeing a live leopard in the wild: In the gravel below was the unmistakable paw print of a big cat, looking uncannily like the marks my pets leave on dusty bookshelves.

Last week I asked Nature and Parks Authority ranger Ben Drori about the leopards. He answered sadly that none have been seen in the area for the past three years.

No matter how much work, money and love are invested in rehabilitation projects, some of the damage can never be repaired.

Some of the wounds are fatal.

On a different camel ride through the desert around the same time, I traveled part of the way with an entomologist. While I was still looking for leopards and admiring the gazelles, lizards and birds, her eyes were following tiny insects. She moaned that people don’t appreciate the importance of humble bugs (OK, she didn’t call them bugs, but you and I know what she meant).

If you don’t protect the insect life, there is no point in carrying out any other wildlife protection programs, she lectured. The insects are an essential part of the food chain. Without them there would be no lizards, birds and mammal life in the desert ecosystem.

It was a message that came uncomfortably back to mind this week as I received photos of beetles that had drowned in the oil. In this case, even if you can’t empathize with an individual insect, the images of the dead ones are incredibly sad. Even animal life that survived the initial disaster might die of starvation or thirst in its wake. The future of the affected acacia trees, for that matter, is also of vital concern.

Part of the tragedy, Drori and I concurred, is that the disaster was preventable. Whether it was an accident or criminal negligence, for those huge quantities of oil to have been spilled indicates that the leak went unnoticed for way too long.

The clean-up operation itself, involving heavy trucks and pumping equipment in the fragile ecosystem, also caused inevitable harm.

Taking a lesson from the quarry rehabilitation and similar projects, this is definitely a case where the “Make the polluter pay principle” should be enforced. Revenue from the EAPC should be channeled into prevention and rehabilitation work. And money also needs to be spent on researching economically feasible alternatives.

On our way down South last week, we passed a field of solar panels turning the desert sun into clean and endless energy. More use of such renewable energy sources would make the future look brighter – and safer.

In a country periodically subject to missile attacks and acts of terrorism, solar panels and wind turbines are particularly attractive. And given that the ground in the Great African Rift is still moving – at a rate of between a half and two centimeters a year in the Ramon Crater area – and the region is prone to earthquakes and tremors, I’d feel a lot happier knowing that less hazardous sources of energy were being widely employed.

Whichever government is elected in March should be made to realize that environmental protection is not a luxury. We can’t completely heal harm caused in the past, but it is our duty to do our best so that future generations can experience and see the natural beauty of the area. A lasting beauty, without the black mark of oil spills.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.