20 kilometres of Ashalim was damaged by 100,000-200,000 cubic meters of waste from the industrial pool in the Mishor Rotem industrial park

Zafrir Rinat | Jun. 24, 2020

The Ashalim stream in southern Israel, June 22, 2020.
The Ashalim stream in southern Israel, June 22, 2020.Credit: Oded Netzer / MInistrey of Environmental Protection

The Ashalim Stream reopened to hikers on Monday, three years after it was closed after being damaged by waste from an industrial pool operated by the Rotem Amfert Negev company.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel announced the decision, which was coordinated with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. The decision was preceded by a risk assessment.

Work on rehabilitating the upper portion of the stream hasn’t begun yet. Most of the stream is located in a nature reserve.

Ashalim was damaged by 100,000-200,000 cubic meters of waste from the industrial pool, which is located in the Mishor Rotem industrial park. The waste is a byproduct of the process to manufacture phosphates.

The waste continued flowing for 48 hours and affected 20 kilometers of the stream. It also caused serious damage to nearby flora and fauna, including ibexes.

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s Green Police is conducting a criminal investigation into the pollution, as it suspects environmental laws were violated.

The risk assessment was conducted by a group of experts, including some from the international consulting firm TAUW. The goal was to assess the potential danger to both hikers and employees of the Nature and Parks Authority.

The assessment involved taking a series of soil samples from 18 locations and water samples from eight different runoff pools over the past several weeks. The goal was to compare current pollution levels in the stream to the maximum permissible levels set by the risk assessment team.

The team concluded that the level of various pollutants fell below those maximums. For instance, the concentration of fluoride, one of the main pollutants from the leak, was a tenth of the maximum permissible level in the runoff pools. The water’s acidity level was not dangerous either.

Given these results, and after consulting with the Health Ministry, the Environmental Protection Ministry concluded that the stream is no longer dangerous to visitors, so there is no reason to bar them.

The Ashalim Stream lies on the boundary between the Judean Desert and the northeastern Negev. Part of it wanders through cliffs and becomes a deep gorge. That gorge has pools in which water accumulates for several months following the winter rains.

The pools and the vegetation they make possible provide an important source of food and drink for the area’s ibexes. For years, the stream has also been a popular spot for hikers seeking a challenge, attracting thousands – both individuals and groups – every year.

To improve monitoring of the water quality in these pools, the Environmental Protection Ministry demanded that Israel Chemicals, Rotem Amfert Negev’s parent company, draft a plan to conduct such monitoring in conjunction with the nature authority.

To rehabilitate the upper portion of the stream, which lies closest to the industrial pool, the nature authority plans to remove the polluted upper layer of soil and replace it with new soil bearing similar characteristics that will be taken from a nearby spot, according to the head of the authority’s science department, Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy. The project has been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis.