Steinitz: Sorek desalination irregularities will be investigated by police

Sorek, which has been in operation since 2013, produces approximately 150 million cubic meters of drinkable water annually.

August 20, 2019 18:11
3 minute read.
Steinitz: Sorek desalination irregularities will be investigated by police

Yuval Steinitz . (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Findings of “systematic and continuous deviations” from required water quality standards and false reporting at the country’s largest desalination plant will be transferred to police investigators, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday.

Announcing the conclusions of a committee tasked with investigating alleged chloride irregularities at the Sorek desalination plant, located 15 km. south of Tel Aviv, Steinitz promised a “serious” response to “very serious findings.”

Sorek, which has been in operation since 2013, produces approximately 150 million cubic meters of potable water annually.

The committee, headed by Energy Ministry director-general Udi Adiri, discovered “systematic and continuous deviations” in the concentration of chloride in water produced by the facility over a period of more than two years. On certain occasions, chloride concentration was four times higher than the maximum threshold agreed by the desalination facility and the state.

Despite the findings, the committee found the water provided by Sorek did not pose a health hazard and met the Health Ministry’s mandatory water requirement standards.

Every morning, ahead of collecting daily water samples, the desalination plant control room would temporarily alter the operations of the facility to “misrepresent” the quality of the water and produce samples meeting the standards specified by the state. The committee stated that the purpose of the move was to enable the facility to demonstrate compliance with the agreement while reducing costs of operating the facility.

Condemning “severe failings” by the desalination plant management, the committee said managers were aware of the control room’s procedure and were either “aware of” or “ignored” the possibility of a significant deviation in chloride concentration during most of the day. Over an 18-month period, the chloride concentration exceeded agreed limits by approximately 20%.

In dozens of cases, the committee added, the desalination facility reported false laboratory test results to the Water Authority, as if the chloride concentration was within the required range.

The committee also criticized the state for not using regulatory tools at its disposal to ensure the proper conduct of the facility, including the failure to demand random water samples. State officials relied too heavily on reports issued by desalination facilities, without questioning their conduct. They assumed that data regarding water quality was accurate and reliable, and failed to detect unusual patterns in real time.

“As soon as we became aware of the anomalies, I appointed an investigatory committee headed by the director-general of the ministry, Udi Adiri, and authorized the committee to evaluate the data of all desalination plants,” said Steinitz. “We will not accept, and we will treat very seriously, any fraud or misrepresentation of data. The conclusions of the committee were presented to me, and these are very serious findings which will be dealt with seriously. Some of the findings will be transferred to police investigators following the identification of criminal activity. I am convinced that the severe steps that we are taking will deter [similar activity] in the present and future. Water is an essential good and we will work to restore public confidence in the Israeli water sector.”

In its conclusions, the committee recommended effective and deterrent enforcement action against the facility, taking into account monetary profit generated by the desalination plant operator, fines it would have paid if irregularities were revealed in real time, management failures and the severe damage to public trust in the water supply system.

Furthermore, the committee also recommended that the findings be transferred to investigators to conduct a criminal investigation and identify the parties responsible for the false reporting of laboratory test results. To improve desalination plant monitoring, the committee advocates the collection of three daily samples, random testing and improved digital identification of irregularities.

Finally, the committee also called on directors of all desalination plants to tighten existing control mechanisms concerning water quality, and to ensure that significant operational decisions affecting facility compliance are brought to their attention.
Dan Capital acquired the Sorek desalination plant in February from IDE (Israel Desalination Enterprises), which became the sole owner of the facility in June 2018 when it bought Hutchison Water’s 49% holding in the plant. At its commission, Sorek was the largest reverse-osmosis desalination plant in the world.

Three groups are currently bidding to build Sorek 2, a private-public partnership which will be the world’s largest desalination plant when completed in 2023. The plant will produce 200 million cu.m. of potable water per year, increasing the country’s annual desalinated water production to 785 million cu.m. – approximately 85% of Israel’s water needs.

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