Nearly one week after the oil spill in the Arava, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toured the afflicted area and said that at the moment the situation appears to be “under control.”
“Everyone’s big concern,” he said, “is a loss of control [because of] large floods that can take the oil south to Eilat and the Eilat Gulf.
Actions were taken here to prevent that, and up until now they have succeeded.”
Netanyahu was briefed on the situation and said the goals of the clean-up efforts were to preserve public health, to work to minimize the danger of pollution reaching Eilat and to rebuild the nature reserve.
The oil spill occurred last Wednesday close to the town of Be’er Ora, approximately 20 km. north of Eilat, and has badly damaged the Evrona Nature Reserve.
The Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) revealed that the spill, caused by a breach during maintenance work, saw 5 million liters of crude oil spill out of the pipeline – much larger than an initial estimate of 1.5 million liters.
The Environmental Protection Ministry said Tuesday that despite the rainfall in the southern Arava region, the crude oil did not flow outside the area that has already been contaminated.
According to the ministry, crews have been working to build dams and laying out absorbing materials by the drainage openings at the northern point of the Eilat Gulf to prevent the oil from reaching the Red Sea.
“So far, 20,000 tons of contaminated soil and most of the leaked oil have been removed from the Evrona Nature Reserve and other parts of the Arava,” the ministry said.
Despite these best efforts, however, flora and fauna in the region have been harmed. Experts found that 430 acacia trees were damaged.
“Ascertaining the extent of all the damage will take months,” the ministry said.
Among those accompanying Netanyahu was MK Ophir Akunis (Likud), appointed Tuesday as acting environmental protection minister, effectively replacing Amir Peretz who quit last month in protest over the administration’s policies.
“I intend to be here until we know for sure that two main things have been blocked: First of all, the health risks to local residents and those who live further south, and, of course, everything related to environmental matters,” Akunis said.
“I intend to be here until we know for sure that all the dangers have passed, and we will sit down very soon and examine a series of recommendations that will be submitted to the cabinet so that such events do not recur – this is very important; they must not recur – and in order to do whatever is necessary in the wake of this leak,” he told the prime minister.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel praised the appointment and called on Akunis to jump right into the position and take responsibility for the clean-up.
“Your entry into the position takes place at the height of one of the greatest ecological disasters ever known in Israel, and now it is your responsibility to take care of the heavy pollution and the pollutants, so that a disaster like this will never happen again in the future,” it said.
The organization called on the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, headed by MK Miri Regev, to examine the role of EAPC in the spill.
The committee convened on Tuesday to discuss the oil spill and tighter control laws for environmental protection.
“I am giving all the parties involved time to work right now to save the Eilat Gulf, but I will not let go those responsible for this serious failure and I will work to increase supervision in the field,” Regev said at the opening of the meeting.
MK Dov Henin, chairman of the Social-Environmental Lobby, said at the committee hearing that the accident could have been averted.
“We warned, right here in this committee, of a possible oil disaster, and all the things that we warned about ended up occurring. This should never have happened. We will demand explanations and answers and will call all relevant parties to understand what happened and how it happened,” he said.
According to Henin, the administration repeatedly rejected legislation to place more up to date environmental monitoring and enforcement rules in effect.
“The entire issue of EAPC requires much more serious supervision and control,” he said.
Raviv Shapira, deputy director-general of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told Army Radio on Tuesday morning that the rehabilitation process of the nature reserve could take years.
“The operation will take at least a year because of the area of the pollution is enormous – fuel ran in all the river courses [that are] six-kilometers long and one-kilometer wide,” he said.
Only in a year’s time will we know what the damage is and only after a “few good years” will we know what will be able to recover, he said.Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.