This spill should serve as a wake-up call also about the potential hazards to the delicate environment of the Red Sea and the coral reefs.

By LIAT COLLINS   MARCH 4, 2021 18:49

Tar pollution near the shore of Israel  (photo credit: CEO OF THE NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY SHAUL GOLDSTEIN)
Tar pollution near the shore of Israel (photo credit: CEO OF THE NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY SHAUL GOLDSTEIN)

There is nothing so temporary as a footprint in the sand – unless it’s a carbon footprint filled with tar from an offshore oil spill. Some 160 kilometers of Israel’s Mediterranean coast, from Rosh Hanikra in the North to Ashkelon in the South, have been blackened with tons of tar whose impact will continue to be felt even when the sand itself looks cleaner.

In a Kan Radio podcast, Jonathan Aikhenbaum, the director of Greenpeace Israel, called the incident “an environmental crime.”

Every environmental disaster has its symbol. This week, on Israel’s beaches, it was the image of a dead turtle that served as a badge of shame. Many more turtles, birds and lizards and other creatures struggling to see, breathe, move – to somehow survive – were treated by veterinary and animal welfare teams. Not all of them could be saved.  

One of the earliest public indications of the disaster that was taking place was the giant carcass of a young fin whale, 17 meters (55 feet) in length, that washed up on the shore at the Nitzanim nature reserve in the South. Preliminary results of the extraordinary in situ postmortem revealed large quantities of oil in the intestines of the gigantic mammal. The body of the whale was later buried and it is expected that when it has fully decomposed, the skeleton will be exhumed and go on display in a local museum. In museums, a dead whale can serve as an attraction. Putrefying on a beach, a dead whale should serve as a warning.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said the ministry was examining information from the European Maritime Safety Agency according to which what appeared to be an oil spill was seen on satellite images around a week ago, some 50 km. from Israel’s shoreline. She said one or more of around 10 ships that passed by the site of the spill could be responsible for the event. 

At the ministry’s request, a court later issued a gag order on much of the investigation. Although this was later partially lifted, the censorship served only to raise more questions. The damage on the coast was clearly evident, so what was being covered up in the inquiry?

There was speculation that the source could have been from a crude oil tank on a vessel that either was emptied on purpose, in violation of international law, or was the result of a malfunction that wasn’t reported.

Had the spill been contained at sea, before reaching the shores, the impact would have been much less severe, and one question that needs to be addressed is why the Environmental Protection Ministry – which recently held a drill for such an emergency – failed to receive the information or act in time.

The tar was a blast from the past. When I growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, it was not unusual for beachgoers to find tar sticking to their feet and beach towels. These are not-so-fond childhood memories from beaches in France as well as Israel. But those days should be long gone as environmental and marine protection laws, such as the 1976 Barcelona Convention, went into effect.  Last week’s incident made me reach for The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook, a spiral-bound guide published by Rutgers University Press in 1995, which had been sitting on my bookshelf since my days covering the environment beat for The Jerusalem Post.

Blowing off the dust, I appreciated the irony that I was looking at a printed handbook rather than an online guide on Google. There was something curiously unmodern about the incident. In a world in which everything is monitored by satellites and sensors, devastating oil spills should not be taking place, unnoticed or unreported.

The destruction caused when the Amoco Cadiz tanker ran aground off the French coast in 1978 or the Exxon Valdez spill onto Alaska’s Prince William Sound 1989 or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 should be a thing of the past.

The Handbook confirmed my fears that the affect of the tar on the shoreline could be felt for years: “In general, biological damage from spills in coastal or estuarine environments is much more severe than from spills in open ocean.”

The book also noted that some cleanup operations, while well-intentioned, can cause more damage: Scrubbing rocks can make them look better but it can destroy surviving organisms that are an essential part of the habitat. The tar, which has covered some unique coastal environmental habitats, will have an effect on the entire food chain as well as the breeding sites of certain species. It could cling to the surfaces of rocks for years to come. Israel’s northern coastline was particularly badly hit and Lebanon has also reported beaches being affected by the tar.

The whale, turtles and birds are visible victims of an oil spill, but we might not know the true extent of harm caused to fish and shellfish. Even sea creatures that manage to swim away from the source of the pollution might have their food supplies and breeding grounds destroyed. The Mediterranean, a relatively small and closed sea, does not have the flow of an open ocean to help disperse the pollution and minimize its effects. While further storms could wash more tar onto the beaches, strong sunshine could make the substance stickier and harder to clean.

The general public was advised against going to the country’s beaches for recreation – a particular blow as Israel emerges from its third closure. But thousands of volunteers donned plastic gloves to help with the clean-up in cooperation with local authorities, the Environment Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and various environmental organizations. The IDF sent soldiers to fight the pollution on the beaches.

Much of the clean-up effort needs to be carried out by hand, a physically demanding task made more difficult by the fumes from the tar. Some of the volunteers sifted the sand bit by bit – one enterprising individual brought a couscous strainer from home. Others, on their hands and knees, did their best to clean the rocks and rocky pools. 

Many politicians described the volunteers’ response as “heartwarming,” which it was. Nonetheless it is evident that more effort needs to be made to prevent such disasters and to tackle them at a national level rather than turn them into an opportunity for an election campaign photo opportunity and promises of future funding.

Several environmental NGOs noted that the government had authorized a National Contingency Plan for Preparedness and Response to Combating Marine Oil Pollution in 2008, but the plan was never passed at the legislative stage, leaving funding, equipment and manpower for such emergencies woefully lacking.

This spill should serve as a wake-up call also about the potential hazards to the delicate environment of the Red Sea and the coral reefs. Government plans call for more oil tankers delivering fuel from the Gulf to Eilat, boosted by the new ties with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. I wonder not only what is in the pipeline but what is the condition of the pipeline itself – the one through which millions of tons of oil are meant to flow before being shipped from Ashkelon to Europe. Similarly, the environmental potential hazards of the country’s natural gas installations, just 10 km. offshore, need to be addressed. And imagine the repercussions were the desalination plants on which the country relies for water to be rendered inoperable.

If nothing else, this disaster should show that while gas and oil can be used to improve diplomatic ties now, fossil fuels are not the way to go in the future. There has to be a move to cleaner, renewable energy.

The last words in the chapter on “Oil spills in marine environments” in The Reporter’s Environmental Handbook remain relevant: “Prevention remains paramount.”

The tar is literally a black stain. A black flag now waves all along Israel’s coast. It needs to be heeded.