Magen is one of several sites in Israel where groundwater has been contaminated by the activities of government-owned companies

Clean-up work at the IMI facility in central Israel, last week.
Clean-up work at the IMI facility in central Israel, last week. Credit: David BacharZafrir Rinat

Zafrir Rinat

Apr 18, 2023

Over 20 years ago, one of the worst cases of groundwater contamination was recorded at the site of a former Israel Military Industries factory straddling Tel Aviv and Givatayim. The state dragged its feet for years in dealing with the Magen site and began operations to clean the water and keep the contamination from spreading further. Magen is one of several sites in Israel that have been contaminated by the activities of government-owned companies. If they are not dealt with, groundwater will continue to become contaminated and the costs of remediation will continue to climb.

Magen was used to manufacture guns using processes involving toxic solvents and compounds used to electroplate metals, included known carcinogens such as chromium and trichloroethylene. Some of these materials are volatile, with evaporated gases flowing into basements or underground parking lots, posing health risks there.

In the absence of anti-pollution laws, effluents from the facility flowed untreated into pits in the ground, from where they seeped into groundwater. After the facility was evacuated in the 1990s, a survey was conducted, with heavy pollution detected in the soil and groundwater. The level of trichloroethylene was found to be over 90,000 micrograms per liter, compared to a permitted level in drinking water of 20 micrograms. High levels of gases were detected in basements and parking garages in the area.

The Magen site and its surroundings became a comprehensive health and environmental hazard zone, with very limited efforts made to deal with it. Some of the land was evacuated and nearby buildings required special protective measures in basements and underground parking areas in order to block noxious gases. A plan to build apartments on a 10.6 acre lot could not proceed due to the pollution. The problem was exacerbated when high-rises were built in the area. In order to fortify building foundations, it was necessary to pump out groundwater. This formed hydrological pits in the area, which attracted water from the Magen site. This spread the pollution, leading to the closure of two drilling sites for potable water.

Over the years, the Finance Ministry did not provide the necessary funds for restoring the polluted area, despite a cabinet resolution to do so. Ultimately, the Tel Aviv municipality decided to take the matter into its hands. “City hall calculated that the cost of restoration was lower than the property taxes it could have collected from apartments build over this area,” says Sharon Sagi Ben-Moshe, who is in charge of ground water remediation at the Israel Water Authority.

“A residential neighborhood will be built in this area, which is a highly desirable location close to mass transportation,” the city said in a statement to explain its support for rehabilitating the area. “Remediation of the ground water will afford a safe environment for implementing this plan.”

Together with the Israel Land Authority and the Israel Water Authority, the Tel Aviv municipality published a bid for restoring the groundwater two years ago, at a cost of 18.1 million shekels ($5 million). The winner was a company called LDD Advanced Technologies, which has started working on the project in recent months. “In the first stage, we drilled and mapped the existing pollution,” explains Nimrod Gafni, the head of the remediation project on behalf of LDD. As expected, contamination levels at Magen dropped, after pollutants spread to groundwater in other areas. However, they are still too high and must be addressed in order to bring them to acceptable levels.

The first step is the introduction of pollutant-degrading bacteria brought from Canada. Facilities for introducing them into the water have already been erected. “We will investigate whether the conditions are right for bacterial activity and what pollution levels are after the bacteria get to work,” says Gafni. “If this isn’t sufficient, we’ll introduce more of these bacteria.” This will take several months.

After reaching the required target, remaining groundwater will be pumped up in order to prevent further spread of pollutants. “This can be done while construction is commenced,” says Sagi Ben-Moshe. “The water will be taken to the area’s sewage treatment plant. This may require additional prior purification.” She notes that part of the compound has already been approved for construction, after it was established that there is no hazardous pollution there.

The purpose of pumping out groundwater is to draw back adjacent water and completely halt the spread of pollutants. The costs of this are still unknown, since the cost of transporting water to the treatment plan is unclear.

The Magen story provides several environmental insights. One is the great importance of setting environmental standards, which has made it unlikely that such a facility could exist today. Another insight is the importance of the health and economic aspects of a quick resolution of pollution incidents, before it spreads and complicates remedying the situation. The sluggishness of the Finance Ministry and the Israel Land Authority made current treatment of the problem much more expensive and complicated.

Clean-up work at the IMI facility in central Israel, last week.
Clean-up work at the IMI facility in central Israel, last week. Credit: David Bachar

“Remediation of groundwater in this compound is part of a trend of dealing with other sites used by military industries,” says Yehezkel Lifshitz, the head of the Israel Water Authority. “It’s required for the protection of the public’s health and for developing evacuated areas.”

Three companies offered proposals last month for dealing with the largest area of polluted groundwater at the former IMI site in Ramat Hasharon. More than 30,000 new apartments are planned for this area. The winner of the bid prepared by the ministries of finance and energy and the Israel Water Authority will erect an installation for pumping 5.5 million cubic meters of polluted groundwater a year for 25 years. The water will be purified at this facility and channeled into the nearby Yarkon Stream. The pollution has closed down drilling sites for potable water in Ramat Hasharon, north Tel Aviv and Herzliya. Without this pumping, the pollution will spread and shut down other drilling sites.

In recent weeks, an agreement was reached between the treasury and a company called Netzer Hasharon, which is responsible for dealing with environmental hazards caused by military industries, regarding the financing of remediating groundwater near the Givon facility near Rehovot. This is contingent on the approval of the state budget. The Water Authority is promoting plans for such remediation in other fomer IMI sites including Tirat Carmel, near Haifa, the Nof Yam neighborhood of Herzliya and the Beit Hakerem neighborhood in Jerusalem.