A tractor struck a portion of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline during pipe rehabilitation work on Wednesday morning, causing over 1.5 million liters of jet fuel oil to spill into Nahal Zin and the surrounding Negev nature reserve.

Experts said the cleanup of the area could take weeks.

“This is one of the largest soil contaminations to occur in the last year in Israel,” Guy Samet, manager of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s southern district, told The Jerusalem Post. “It’s not just typical soil pollution – it’s in a very sensitive area.”

Dozens of inspectors from the Nature and Parks Authority and the Environmental Protection Ministry were still assessing the extent of the damage caused at the end of the day. Amounts of spilled oil that the former deemed “severe pollution” will require a “Sisyphean” amount of work to fully extract, according to a statement.

After the tractor hit the pipeline, an “outburst of jet fuel oil” flowed into the Nahal Zin and the mountainside, a leak that emergency crews only succeeded in plugging about four or five hours after the incident, the Nature and Parks Authority said.

Other workers began the process of cleaning the pollution, and a tanker from the Eilat- Ashkelon Pipeline Company was shuttled in to pump the remaining puddles of fuel oil from the ground.

“We see the event as extremely severe, particularly regarding the damage caused to natural treasures in the reserve,” said Eli Amitai, director of Nature and Parks Authority, in a statement. “As soon as we heard news of the leak and its severity we summoned dozens of inspectors and officials into the area.”

These workers, he explained, rushed in to help close the area to hikers and then begin carrying out preliminary operations for cleaning up the mess.

“We are preparing to treat the damage in an optimal way in order to reduce the damage in nature to a minimum, but according to preliminary estimates it will be difficult work, taking days, perhaps weeks,” Amitai said.

Raviv Shapira, director of the southern district of the Nature and Parks Authority, added: “The damage is tremendous – beyond the contamination on the surface and in the burrows of wildlife in the area, a big part of the fuel seeped into the ravine, and the Environmental Protection Ministry has already begun to assess the damage and the extent of rehabilitation necessary. It is also investigating the circumstances of this grave event.”

The next step – beginning on Thursday – will be transferring large amounts of polluted soil from the area to a nearby treatment center, officials said.

“Tomorrow they are supposed to take the first segment, and after we conduct the treatment, there will be another shipment,” Samet told the Post, noting that the Environmental Protection Ministry did not yet know the exact amount of soil to be transported, as the workers are still taking measurements.

“We’re now starting to investigate everything that’s happening there,” he said.

This oil slick follows two spills that hit the shores of Eilat just this past weekend, and environmental activists slammed the government for not taking measures necessary to prevent such crises.

“This seems like a severe ecological disaster,” said Hila Krupsky, Greenpeace spokeswoman, in a statement. “Greenpeace calls upon the Environmental Protection Ministry and all the authorities involved to minimize the damage and treat this immediately.”

Krupsky added that this incident is a “large, black flag that the State of Israel must address” and called for people to “wean” themselves off the “addiction to oil” and instead turn to renewable energy.

“The oil accident today is an additional red light indicating the necessity of change in the approach to environmental protection in the oil field,” said MK Dov Henin (Hadash), chairman of the Environment and Health Committee, in a statement. “The National Infrastructures minister, who is trying to thwart the modern Petroleum Law that I recommended, insists upon being the only blameworthy party in a future state inquiry commission. It is essential that the next oil catastrophe be prevented.”

Green Movement co-chairman Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev agreed, admonishing the Ministerial Committee for rejecting on June 19 amendments to the 1952 Petroleum Law, which would require updated environmental standards regarding oil and gas drilling in Israel.

“This is a real lesson,” he told the Post on Wednesday evening.

“An oil spill in the Mediterranean could be disastrous,” he continued, referring to the new drilling beginning in the Tamar and Leviathan natural gas basins. “At present, there are insufficient measures dedicated to averting a marine ecological disaster associated with a spill. We still have time to get our act together.”

Tal stressed that the government must learn from Wednesday’s Nahal Zin crisis and enact new environmental regulations with respect to oil and gas drilling before such an event hits an even larger area.

“Before we start our new venture in the Mediterranean, it would be well worth it to find the expertise needed and develop a protocol, so as not to find ourselves in a similar situation in the Mediterranean, where the damage could be disastrous,” he said.

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