According to experts, the pollution of Ashalim Stream by a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals – which is controlled by billionaire Idan Ofer – will persist for decades

Zafrir Rinat. Jun 15, 2023

The damage caused by an acidic waste spill in a nature reserve in southern Israel in 2017 will be with us for decades to come, say researchers who have studied the contamination of the Nahal Ashalim Nature Reserve.

In July 2017 the walls of a giant industrial waste collecting pool, used by Israel Chemicals’ subsidiary Rotem Amfert in southern Israel’s Mishor Rotem Industrial Zone, collapsed. More than 100,000 cubic meters of acidic waste flowed down the entire length of the Ashalim Stream. Some was absorbed filtered into the soil and wound up in the local vegetation, killing the plants. Ibexes, bats and other animals living in the wadi and its environs also died.Open gallery view

A sign warning against entering the Ashalim Stream, following the spill.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Ma’arag Team, which is responsible for monitoring nature in Israel, began to measure the effects of this accident about a year after it happened, and presented their findings at a conference organized by The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University, in May. The analyses included plants and animals, changes in the soil, and comparisons with the environment in streams in the vicinity that the pollution did not reach. Dozens of researchers from multiple universities, government research institutes, the Nature and Parks Authority, and the Environmental Protection Ministry took part in the process.

Residents allied with scientists to petition courts to approve a class action against Rotem Amfert, whose parent company, Israel Chemicals, is controlled by Idan Ofer. 

Altogether the spill affected 1,400 dunams (350 acres) of the Ashalim stream and the area. In the subsequent years, there have been five flooding events that began upstream, but they failed to flush out the contamination. Then last week a small quantity of brine (salt water) leaked from a pipeline in the Mishor Rotem area belonging to another Israel Chemicals unit, Periclase. The Environment Ministry ordered Periclase to clean up the spill, which it said could damage soil. 

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As for the original 2017 spill, Dr. Uri Nachshon from the Volcani Institute, leader of the Ma’arag team, says that at several places along the Ashalim stream, there is no sign that the high concentrations of contaminants are declining. Gypsum from the spill is still evident in the soil and the river banks above the stream, where the flood waters didn’t reach, remain befouled.

Asked to what extent the pollution endangers the environment or public health, Nachshon answers: “I’m not yet ready to make an assessment, but what I can say is that my children are still at the age that they like to come with their father to work. I decided not to take them there.”

Other researchers narrowed in on the harm to specific animals and vegetation. Prof. Ali Nejidat of Ben-Gurion University says that the waters of the Ashalim stream are suffering from a serious paucity of cyanobacteria, which are critical to the stream’s ecological system. Other scientists detected damage to the biological material in soil layers that also plays an important role in sustaining the ecosystem.

The worst damage was in the upstream sandy section of Ashalim, in immediate proximity to the spill. Among other things, they researchers identified serious harm to arthropods, including ants, due to their exposure to high concentrations of fluoride in the wastewater leak, according to researchers from the Steinhardt Nature Museum. The fur and feathers of animals and birds in the area were found to contain enough fluoride to impair their physiological functioning.

All this said, in an area east of the stream, there are signs of recovery. The main concern had been harm to acacia trees in the area, but subsequent checks found the damage to be minor and the three trees are recovering.

After the 2017 incident, residents of the Arava allied with scientists to petition the courts to approve a class action against Rotem Amfert, whose parent company, Israel Chemicals, is controlled by the tycoon Idan Ofer. The claim was filed in Be’er Sheva Magistrates Court and in an unusual move, it was joined by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. 

Five months ago, the court approved a settlement in which Rotem Amfert agreed to pay damages amounting to 100 million shekels ($28 million) for the harm caused to Nahal Ashalim. Raya Shukri, the CEO of the Nature and Parks Authority, said at the conference in May that the outcome established an important precedent in that a polluter agreed to pay compensation for damage done to nature. 

However, the advocacy group Lobby 99 and former Knesset member Mickey Rosenthal motioned the court to reject the settlement, asserting that it failed to address the claimants’ goals, which were not only to obtain financial compensation for the damage but assign personal responsibility to Rotem Amfert executives and to assure steps are taken to prevent similar incidents in the future. 

“The settlement lacks any forward-looking component, which stands in complete contrast to what is customary in settlements arising from class actions in general and in an environmental context in particular,” their filing said. 

The Nature and Parks Authority plans to survey sites at risk for ecological disasters like the one that occurred in Nahal Ashalim, concerned that accidents of the type could happen again, Shukri says. The motivation behind the survey was strengthened by a waste spill in the area of Ramallah in January 2022, reaching the Wadi Qelt Nature Reserve and causing serious harm there too.