A clear vision

A Zalul environmental group study shows just how Israel's waters are being polluted.

beach metro 88298 (photo credit: Courtesy, Zalul)
beach metro 88298
(photo credit: Courtesy, Zalul)
Many of the country's proliferating environmental organizations tend to conglomerate their headquarters around the Heschel Center in south Tel Aviv. Not so the Zalul Association for Environmental Protection.
Zalul [Hebrew for clear] operates from the heart of Babylon - an office tower owned by a leading telecommunications company in Ramat Gan's bourse business area. "We're different from other amutot," says the non-profit organization's Executive Director Yariv Abramovich. "We're not granola-eating tree-huggers. The staff here all have a strong business, media or technical background. We believe in changing from the inside, by speaking the same language."
Such is the persevering ambiance of the organization's workmanlike office, where about 10 paid employees researched the data that appeared in Zalul's 2007 State of the Sea report, released last month to a flurry of local media attention. "We believe in attacking a limited number of issues from all angles, and have a high management attention ratio," explains Abramovich, an attorney with an extensive background in business management.
When he assumed the reigns in 2003, Abramovich's goal was to bring effective management strategies to Zalul, and to increase its productivity and effectiveness.
Zalul was set up seven years ago by Morris and Benjamin Kahn, press-shy father-and-son businessmen originally from South Africa. "They are environmentalists from the heart, and want to do something about the situation," says Abramovich. "Benjie is a keen diver, and he saw the degradation of the Eilat coral reef over the years. Then came the Kishon river disaster in 2000 [when it was revealed that dozens of naval commandos were exposed to cancer after conducting regular diving training sessions in the Kishon as part of their regular training]."
As a non-government organization (NGO) operating within the dovetail of Israeli business and politics, Zalul is careful not to take sides. "Our financial sources are all from abroad - we're afraid of a conflict of interests," Abramovich explains.
However, he points out that more Israelis are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment, part of a fundamental paradigm change beginning to sweep the western world. "This year we will begin fundraising from Israeli high-tech firms," he says.
The organization has led some effective campaigns for water protection in recent years, tackling environmental issues that other organizations shy away from, such as preserving the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat and the fight to remove fish cages from the Red Sea. Zalul is involved in a plethora of activities throughout the year (see www.zalul.org for details), some in cooperation with other green groups. "The green movements cooperate and coordinate, which gives us all greater leverage," notes Abramovich. "Our emphasis is on implementation of technologies and grass-roots activism."
Because of its professional outlook, the organization's annual report is gaining acceptance by policymakers as a benchmark. "Last year's report concentrated on the gap between what the Health Ministry reports about marine pollution and what the public knows," says Abramovich. "We pointed out that they were using the wrong indicators. As a result, the relative government ministries met to set new chemical standards. This year's report concentrates on the activities of the inter-ministerial Committee for Permitting Discharge Into the Sea."
The 32-page report makes damning reading. Despite recent beach clean-up campaigns (see this week's Environment Watch), the state of Israel's coastal waters remains appalling. The waters have been polluted over a period of many years, leading to an accumulation of hazardous and even toxic substances, incurring irreversible damage in some locations. Zalul points an accusing finger at the Permit Committee as one of the main causes of the pollution, by granting excessive permits for the discharge of industrial and municipal wastewater into the sea. The number of permits - which has grown over the years - has intensified the quantities of pollutants pouring into the sea, and authorized discharges are currently estimated at over 100 million cubic meters per year.
Sadly, the polluting of Israel's coastal waters has not declined significantly in recent years. Wastewater discharges onto the coastline and beaches - which originate from both industrial and municipal sources - are rising due to industrial development and population growth. This wastewater contains an extensive mix of chemicals, heavy metals, pathogenic bacteria and substances suspected as being carcinogenic.
According to Zalul, the permitted quantities discharged into the sea every year include 140 tons of heavy metals, tens of thousands of tons of organic pollutants, a ton of cyanide, 1,300 tons of toxic ammonia and over 130 tons of pesticides. Meanwhile, sections of Israel's 190-km coastline are sealed off to the public, including some polluted beaches where bathing is liable to endanger health.
"There is no regulator, because the Environment Ministry has such a low budget," says Abramovich. "They are good people who can't do anything. Politicians are affected by industrial considerations - no factory has ever been closed in Israel because of environmental demands."
With the growing realization that the Mediterranean Sea - an enclosed basin - cannot be turned into a waste dump, international efforts to reduce the amount of pollutants discharged to the sea from land-based sources began in earnest in 1973, with the signing of the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean.
The convention, signed by Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Monaco, Morocco, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey, addressed issues of sustainable management of marine and land-based resources, preventing pollution of beaches, protecting landscapes and mutual assistance between Mediterranean states.
Israel signed the convention, ratified it and in 1988 the Knesset enacted the "Prevention of Sea Pollution from Land-Based Sources Law" to implement the convention's protocols. Under this law, the Inter-Ministerial Committee, chaired by the environment ministry, was established to grant permits for discharges into the sea.
By law, wastewater discharge into the sea - both raw and treated - is prohibited unless the permit holder has proved that no advanced technologies exist to treat that wastewater. But the law empowers the committee to authorize exceptional permits in extreme cases.
"The dismal reality," reads the report, "is that industry and local authorities enjoy the protection of the committee and therefore cannot be bothered to invest in the resources required to implement existing technologies. Consequently, sea pollution occurs with government approval."
As the Zalul report points out, in today's world there is no need to explain the importance of environmental protection and preventing pollution of seas and rivers. "It has emerged, alarmingly, that most sea and river pollution in Israel in recent years has occurred with the knowledge and authorization of the Ministry of Environmental Protection under the direction of the Permit Committee for Discharges to the Sea, which operates by virtue of the law, and liberally allows the release of wastewater to the sea," reads the report.
The report effectively infers that a cover-up is going on. "Not only are the committee's decisions hidden, so too are its meetings. Parties with an interest have no right to be present at the committee's meetings, and participation in order to argue against a permit applicant requires submission of a request to the chairman in advance," reads one section.
Over the years attempts have been made to force the government to disclose, on a regular basis, a list of permits granted for discharging wastewater to the sea, location of the wastewater flows, quantity, quality and composition of the substances they contain, and create a regional hazard map to inform citizens of the dangers they face if they bathe in the sea.
Zalul is now calling for upgraded national investment in advanced wastewater treatment technologies, joining the national and international effort to reduce the damage incurred to the environment. "Over the past year, Zalul has gathered extensive information about the permits granted by the committee to the polluters, and unfortunately, the picture that emerges is much worse than initially imagined. Thousands of tons of hazardous substances and heavy metals, tens of millions of cubic meters of partially treated sewage and petroleum products are discharged to the sea every year, at a time when advanced technologies to treat the wastewater are widely available," reads the report.
"In Israel, the exception has become the rule," says Abramovich. "The committee is almost as secret as the Nuclear Energy Committee. We have to be 'spies' to get the juicy information - and we haven't uncovered half of what's going on yet. The Environmental Protection Ministry does not reveal such information, because they say they're defending commercial secrets."
Zalul's data gathering has revealed over 100 permits for discharging wastewater to the sea granted by the committee every year, sometimes disturbingly close to bathing beaches. On several occasions, permission was reportedly granted to discharge very large quantities of wastewater containing substances hazardous to the environment and humans, including substances whose discharge to the sea is prohibited by law.
The sources of information for Zalul's coastal survey remain for the most part secret, "because of the government's unwillingness to disclose the true extent of the sea pollution to the public," says Abramovich.
In the US and Europe, people can find out which areas are polluted by looking at a website, but Israel lacks such transparency (availability of information to the public). The report continues: "The committee's activities remain hidden from the public eye. The policy of concealment and secrecy is endemic throughout all stages of the committee's activities: from the publication of its meetings, to the list of entities granted permits, and ultimately to the details of the discharges. Attempts to expose the committee's work methods to public scrutiny, including the details of the actual permits themselves, are frequently stonewalled, without explanations being offered… The findings are testimony to an alarming situation. The underlying principles of the convention and the provisions of the law have fallen by the wayside, and instead the committee has turned into a body contributing to discharges to the sea, rejecting almost no applications, effectively becoming the main cause for sea pollution in Israel."
Zalul's review of the committee's procedures found no real mechanism for overseeing its activities in order to bring about a reduction in the number of permits granted, effectively enabling the polluters to continue discharging into the sea under the protection of the law.
According to the report, "The identity of the dischargers and the details of the permits are concealed from the public across the board, and the committee conducts its activities in secret. The committee does not act transparently, and does not inform the public about the nature of the discharges and the dangers involved in bathing in the sea in zones which the industrial wastewater drains into."
The Zalul report also insinuates that by acquiescing to the business lobby, the committee is actually breaking the law. "There are concerns that industries important to the Israeli economy are treated leniently at the time the conditions of the permits are drawn up," the report notes. "The Permit Committee operates in breach of the law and the protocols of the Barcelona Convention, approving discharges to the sea of pollutants whose discharge is banned by them."
Abramovich likes to present the issue in simple terms: "When I go to the sea I want to know what I'm swimming in," he says. "There is not one clean river in Israel. Israelis of my generation don't even think of swimming in our rivers. Yet this is reversible. With Israelis' talents, we can solve many of our environmental problems."
"Israel needs industry, but it must be planned for the long term," he concludes. "This is what I call 'Modern Zionism.' We 'Modern Zionists' look at the country and want to make it better, a more pleasant place to live in. We're past the stage where survival is the first priority. We want to go to the beach and breathe fresh air. Protecting the environment - like welfare - is imperative for a stable society. We demand high maintenance. It's time to step up."
And where is it going…? The data collation process for the Zalul report resulted in the locating of seven hotspots, definable as "hazardous zones" in both public health terms (bathers) and in ecological terms (the accumulation of pollutants in edible fish stocks): Nahariya, Acre Bay, Haifa Bay, Herzliya, the greater Tel Aviv region (Gush Dan), Palmahim and Ashdod.
Nahariya: A zone extends from Achziv in the north to south Nahariya. The effluent from the Nahariya municipality wastewater treatment plant, which discharges thousands of cubic meters, is the primary source. In all probability, the discharge will cease in the coming months. The Nahariya municipality reportedly discharged 81 tons of suspended solids and 81 tons of ammonia last year. The city's permit also allows the discharge of 200 tons of various nitrogen compounds per year. The municipality was also allowed to discharge an average of two tons of heavy metals to the sea annually, primarily chromium, nickel and zinc. Permission was also granted to discharge 11 tons of mineral oil originating from fuels into the sea annually.
Since municipal sewage is the main source of the pollution, bathers are at risk from pathogens (bacteria) found in the sewage. Apart from the authorization granted to discharge Nahariya's municipal wastewater to the sea, some observations were made of direct discharges to the sea of wastewater from the Milouot (Milos) food plants, as well as storm waters from the Achziv River polluted with untreated municipal sewage.
Acre Bay: There are two main contributors to the sea pollution in this zone. The Acre municipality findings have similar characteristics to those of the Nahariya municipality. Discharge of sewage in Acre is due to cease this summer after the treatment plant currently under construction completes its trial run. The other primary source is the ALA Infrastructures Terminal, a site and pipeline for the discharge of industrial wastewater to the sea that began operating about a year ago. Thousands of cubic meters of wastewater from factories in the Galilee flow through this marine pipeline, which extends only one kilometer out from Acre's bathing beach. The discharge site reportedly lacks the required wastewater holding facilities.
The quantity of wastewater approved for discharge to the sea via the ALA terminal currently stands at thousands of tons of various pollutant types. This wastewater includes at least 2,800 tons of organic pollutants and 280 tons of ammonia per year. Over 18 tons of oil and 50 tons of phosphorus per year have been approved for discharge into the sea in Acre Bay. However, in reality a much greater quantity of pollutants is discharged into the bay, due to grave deviations from the maximum limits defined in the discharge permit.
Haifa Bay: This zone, extending from the suburban Krayot beaches to Haifa's Quiet Beach, is extremely polluted due to the large number of polluting industries in the vicinity, particularly chemical industries. Some plants discharge wastewater directly into the sea or the port, while others discharge wastewater via the Kishon River. As well as industrial plants, the largest water polluter in Haifa Bay is the Haifa wastewater treatment plant, which has been discharging effluent into the river since 2004. Its contribution to the river's pollution is mainly in the form of high nutrient concentrations.
The wastewater approved for discharge includes contaminants such as BOD (235 tons/year), mineral oils (over 33 tons/year), ammonia, phosphorus, barium and phenol. Metals liable to constitute a public health hazard include chromium, nickel, lead and copper, which together total half a ton/year.
Herzliya:This hazardous zone extends along the town's coastline, which has several bathing beaches. The Herzliya municipality's wastewater treatment plant has reportedly been granted permission to discharge eight million cubic meters of effluent along the city's coastline. The treatment plant's wastewater includes 120 tons of suspended solids and 120 tons of ammonia per year.
In addition, approval was also granted to discharge oils (16 tons/year) and over 64 tons/ year of phosphorus. The Herzliya municipality is in the process of upgrading its wastewater treatment plant following Zalul's battle with it in 2005.
Greater Tel Aviv (Gush Dan): This zone extends from the Zuk beach in the north to the Bat Yam beaches in the south. Bathing beaches in the Greater Tel Aviv region receive wastewater originating mainly from the Shafdan municipal wastewater plant - sludge discharged through a marine outfall located 5 km from the shore. In addition, wastewater is discharged into the Yarkon River from the wastewater treatment plants of Ramat Hasharon, Hod Hasharon and Kfar Saba amounting to 11 million cubic meters per year.
The wastewater approved for discharge to the Greater Tel Aviv region coastline has similar characteristics to the wastewater discharged in Herzliya, but in much greater quantity. The permit committee has also approved the discharge of wastewater from industrial plants in the Negev through the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant to the sea.
Discharges approved for this zone include oil (11 tons/year), organic pollutants (200 tons/year), ammonia (17 tons/year) and phosphorus (11 tons/year). The approved annual concentrations of heavy metals is also liable to compromise the health of bathers: mercury (170 kg), cadmium (290 kg), chromium (nine tons), nickel (three tons), lead (two tons), barium (450 tons), copper (19 tons) and zinc (67 tons). Most of the heavy metals approved for discharge along Israel's coastline are in the Greater Tel Aviv region.
Palmahim: The Palmahim hazardous zone extends around the Soreq River estuary, and suffers from pollution due to the discharge of effluent from the Jerusalem municipality along the Soreq River, as well as some from the Ashdod municipality. The effluent has similar characteristics to that in the Herzliya area, however the quantity permitted is higher, totaling 38 million cubic meters.
The following annual discharges were approved into this zone: over 720 tons of organic pollutants (BOD), 47 tons of oils, over 170 tons of ammonia and over 97 tons of phosphorus. Apart from organic pollutants and heavy metals, discharge of arsenic (three tons/year) and cyanide (150 tons/year) has also been approved. Several of the popular beaches in this area have recently been closed off to bathing on occasions due to the sea pollution.
Ashdod: The Ashdod zone extends from Ashdod port in the north to Nitzanim in the south. Municipal and industrial sewage and wastewater from chemical plants are discharged into the coastal waters in this area, which also receives unauthorized, unmonitored pollution at the Lachish river estuary. A survey conducted by Zalul found that the municipal and industrial wastewater had extremely high levels of pollution liable to endanger bathers' health. As a result of Zalul's battle, an administration was set up to rehabilitate the river and stop the polluters.
Most of the pollution approved for discharge into the sea comes from the Agan Chemicals plant. The pollution in this zone is characterized primarily by organic matter, chemicals and pathogens, with organic pollutants totaling 4,500 tons per year.
What's in the seawater… According to the Zalul report:Substances known to be carcinogenic such as lead, chromium and nickel are approved for discharge in amounts of 24 tons per year; and mercury, cadmium and arsenic in quantities of six tons per year. Zalul estimates that the quantity of heavy metals constituting a substantial health hazard totals 130 tons a year, unevenly distributed along Israel's coastline, the major proportion being approved for discharge in the Greater Tel Aviv region through the Shafdan wastewater treatment plant.
As well as heavy metals, organic compounds and fuels, the discharge of more than 400 tons of herbicides, solvents, detergents and cyanides is also authorized. Some of these pollutants are dangerous and liable to cause instant bodily harm.
About one ton of cyanides are legally dumped into the sea every year. Most of the lethal substance was approved for discharge by the Agan Chemicals plant in Ashdod, and the rest for discharge primarily in the sea opposite Gush Dan beaches.
The ministry's replyIn reply to the accusations in the Zalul report, the ministry of environmental protection's spokesman sent Metro a detailed letter signed by Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra. The seven-page document describes in detail sources of marine pollution and specific actions taken. Below are a few excerpts:
The Zalul report is mistaken, misleads the public, and makes distorted and improper use of data passed to the organization by the ministry.
There has been a drastic decline in the amount of sewage flowing into the Mediterranean Sea in recent years. This is the result of strenuous and concerted efforts, combining professional direction from the Committee for Permitting Discharge Into the Sea with the tight supervision and control of the ministry's Sea and Beaches Division.
The committee's and ministry's achievements in preventing sea pollution are many, and there is room for pride. However, the work is not yet complete, and I have instructed the ministry's personnel to continue to lower sea pollution, not only from direct sources but also via rivers. By lowering pollution levels in rivers, Israel achieves two goals: restoring the rivers and returning them to the public, and preventing pollution of the Mediterranean Sea.
Discharge permits are issued when there is no land-based alternative that is preferable in environmental, availability and economic terms. In some cases, the preferable environmental solution is discharging into saltwater.
The number of discharge permits (as of May 2007) stands at 122.
Between 2001 and 2007, the inter-ministerial committee cancelled or did not renew 87 permits.
Discharged pollutants from the majority of sources described in this document dropped by between tens of percent and 100 percent in this period.