Local residents’ class action lawsuit reveals extent of damage to the Zin Stream, where instead of clear spring water, yellow and foul-smelling sewage water flows regularly.

Zin and Akrabim springs in the Negev desert, September 8, 2020
Zin and Akrabim springs in the Negev desert, September 8, 2020 Credit: Roy Galili

Zafrir Rinat 12.09.2020

A class action lawsuit filed on Sunday reveals the scope of pollution caused by a phosphates production facility in southern Israel, which has damaged the Zin Stream in the eastern Negev Desert. Experts say this has severely damaged the water sources in the stream, and is still ongoing.

A group of local residents, represented by Israel Union for Environmental Defense, filed the lawsuit against Israel Chemicals and its Rotem Amfert subsidiary with the Be’er Sheva District Court, seeking measures to stop the harm caused by their phosphate plants in the area. LISTEN: Kosovo, COVID and Bibi’s brilliant bravadoCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

The request for permission to file a class action suit is based on data and professional opinions from the Water Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry gathered over the years, which describe how the continued flow of sewage from the facility harmed the springs and oasis.

The plaintiffs asked the court to recognize them as a class representing the entire Israeli public, on the grounds that all the country’s natural resources belong to the public and these resources have been harmed by the industrial operations involved in the matter.

A man collects samples of polluted water from streams in the Negev, August 23, 2020
A man collects samples of polluted water from streams in the Negev, August 23, 2020Credit: Roy Galili

This is not the only class action suit that has been filed against Rotem Amfert. In another case that is awaiting court certification as a class action, local residents and Prof. Alon Tal of Tel Aviv University are suing over pollution allegedly caused by the company in the Mishor Rotem region to another water source – Ein Bokek near the Dead Sea. Three years ago, the company’s sewage reservoir in Mishor Rotem collapsed and caused severe pollution to the Ashalim Stream in a nature preserve.

The present case relates to Rotem Amfert’s operation of a plant near the Zin Stream since the 1970s. The facility treats phosphate rock by washing it with water, among other processes. Production processes create effluents sewage sludge with a very high concentration of pollutants. These are dumped into large reservoirs where they wait until some are reused. 

The Zin Stream is one of the most beautiful and important in the region. It has a number of springs and seasonal pools. The water there used to be drinkable and attracted groups of hikers, and is essential for local wild animals and the area’s ecological system.

The first signs of pollution trickling into the environment from these reservoirs began to appear not long after the plant began operating. More significant signs of pollution began to appear in the 1980s, but only in the last decade has the plant begun to take major steps to treat the sewage.

Polluted streams in the Negev, September 2, 2020
Polluted streams in the Negev, September 2, 2020Credit: Roy Galili

Now the stream has transformed from a desert stream fed mostly by winter floods into one where sewage with concentrations of salts flows regularly. The water in the stream now is yellow and foul-smelling, unlike the original clear spring water. This pollution has severely harmed local vegetation and groundwater, and a few rare species of plants have also disappeared from the stream. These days, hikers avoid the stream, and it could even be considered dangerous to hike there. In addition to the salts, the pollutants include heavy metals and fertilizers.

The plaintiffs claim that Rotem Amfert has not taken the necessary steps to seal the sewage reservoirs and prevent the sewage from flowing into the stream. They say the plant’s operations violate a number of laws regarding water and environmental pollution and ecological damage. They also accuse environmental enforcement authorities, and especially the Environmental Protection Ministry, of not doing what is necessary to stop the pollution.

Israel Chemicals said “the company has been informed of the lawsuit, we are studying the claims and will respond as accepted in court.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry said a joint committee with the Water Authority and Nature and Parks Authority has been established to examine the operations of Rotem Amfert’s sewage reservoir in the Zin Valley. It is formulating professional requirements for treating the sludge, including requirements for rehabilitating nearby water resources.

The ministry said it has recently received the recommendations of the Hydrological Service and intends to include these as requirements for the facility’s business license – in addition to other requirements such as rehabilitation of the water resources and springs.