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Rejecting what he termed a recent "campaign of intimidation" by environmentalists regarding pollution levels of Israeli seas, Rani Amir, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry's marine and coastal environment division, insisted this week that "Israel has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to the cleanliness of its beaches, even compared with some of the biggest and most notable Western countries."
Nonetheless, Amir pointed to a failure of local authorities to properly maintain delivery pipe systems in their sewage infrastructure as the reason behind incidents like the one that occurred last weekend in Eilat, which saw a burst delivery pipe send 500 cubic meters of raw sewage into the Gulf of Eilat, forcing the shutdown of area beaches.
Outlining his office's policy in ordering such closures, Amir explained: "When sewage is spilled into the sea, several factors determine whether it endangers the public or not. We check if it was raw sewage, as opposed to treated sewage or treated waste water. We also check whether the sewage was spilled on the beach or in the water, if the sea is stormy or calm, when it happened, and most importantly, how much was spilled - a few cubic meters or three million, as happened in 2004 with the Shafdan (the Dan region sewage treatment facility)."
Amir says that even though sewage is mainly organic substances which disintegrate - sometimes accompanied by other materials like oils, heavy metals from industrial areas, or volatile organic substances - authorities cannot simply ignore a leak.
"Organic substances take oxygen from the environment ... and that changes the environment's balance. A one-time incident doesn't hurt this balance, and the sea overcomes and rehabilitates itself within a couple of days to a week at most, depending on the mass. However, the main fear is for the public's health."
The Health Ministry sets the standards for the amount of bacteria allowed in sea water. In Israel, that level is 400 bacteria per 100 millimeters of seawater, which Amir terms "an excellent standard. Anything above this level this leads to the immediate shutting down of the beach." He favors the policy of shutting down first and deciding on the level of danger to the public. "The sea doesn't love the sewage, and the public even less, but it's not a chronic ecological disaster," he said.
Israeli law also states that pouring sewage or any other liquids into the sea without permission is a felony, unless it's an accident like in the Eilat incident, or another reported at Haifa's Students Beach earlier this week.
"We actually see more pipes bursting in 2007 compared with significant decreases in 2005 and 2006. In recent years, local authorities started to pay more attention to problems with their sewage systems, but they don't do enough to maintain the delivery pipe system and to prevent these sorts of incidents," said Amir.
He recommends that all local authorities create a backup network. "The sewage system is a big pipeline and needs constant maintenance," he explained. "In case of a leak, each city and town has to have a backup pump, generator, an alarm system that reports the level of the sewage and an emergency crew to handle any burst pipes. Besides, every local authority, town or municipality needs to replace old pipes that put the city's delivery system in danger before it plants petunias. The government helps when it is possible, but this is the local authorities' responsibility."
Amir is not happy with the Law of Water and Sewage Corporations (2001), which encourages the privatization of this basic service. "On the one hand, private sewage corporations handle all issues from beginning to end, but on the other hand, there are many financing problems and loopholes in this law. The plan is good, but it isn't tight enough," he said.
He rejected the green groups' claims regarding the levels of pollution in Israel's seas. "The sea off Eilat is in the best shape it's ever been in. Both the marina and the port don't pollute anymore: no oils, no phosphates or boats' dirty water are being poured there," he noted. "People also forget that a decade ago, the city's sewage was poured regularly into the sea - 20,000 cubic meters every single day. The coral reef will need long years to rehabilitate itself, but once the fish cages are taken out of Eilat's seawater, probably in June 2008, this sea will be in great shape if we keep up the good work, and our four-year monitoring plan shows concrete improvements."
Amir adds that the Mediterranean Sea is also consistently improving in quality as the amount of polluting substances poured into it decreases. While in 1998, the overall amount of polluting heavy metals slipped into the water reached 210 tons, in 2004 this figure dropped to 69 tons.
"Of course there are many more things to do and treated industrial sewage is still poured into the sea, but the main problem is the Shafdan, which pours the sewage five kilometers away from the beach and to a depth of 40 meters. The moment we get rid of this hazard, we solve 80-90 percent of Gush Dan's sea pollution, which will rank our beaches among the world's cleanest."
While visitors to countries like Turkey often ask how it is that the sea there is so clear and transparent while Israel's seems more murky, Amir explains that winds and underwater flows are mainly to blame. "We have nothing to be ashamed of," said Amir. "We just have to keep saving this great thing called the sea."
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