The sludge report

Green groups continue to warn of a looming environmental disaster for Israel's coastline.

sea pollution 88 (photo credit: )
sea pollution 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's 190 kilometer Mediterranean coast suffers from neglect and marine pollution: occasional accidental and emergency oil and chemical spills from tankers or storage facilities; continual discharge from industrial and municipal land-based sources; dumping of waste at sea and the all-too obvious litter - including hazardous used syringes - that pollute the sea and beaches. Some local marine environmentalist groups such as Zalul, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting Israel's seas and rivers, point to Gush Dan Region's sewage management company Shafdan, headquartered in Rishon Lezion, as the country's greatest marine polluter. Gal Shoham, spokesperson and tour guide for Shafdan retorts, "It is not true. What we send to the sea is sludge - not raw sewage." And, he adds, the bacteria that end up pumped into the sea as sludge in a protected area of Palmahim beach are benign, and in fact a good source of food for fish. "The problem we do have at Shafdan is with the heavy metals still inside the bodies of the bacteria, such as cadmium and mercury." When the sludge gets pumped five kilometers from the coast at a depth of 38 meters, Shoham assures, there is not much to worry about. "We are working according to the law. If people want to argue with the law, they should speak to their municipalities." Professor Eilon Adar, head of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University, is a hydrologist working in the marine environment. "Whether our coastal waters are getting better or worse, I cannot say," he told Metro. Adar, who works in the area of water desalination, is worried about how raw sewage from the Gaza Strip (currently untreated and dumped straight in the sea) will affect the sensitive membranes used in Israeli desalination plants. "A population of some two million people is dumping raw sewage into the sea," says Adar, explaining that sheer biomass is the problem. "Planktons that flourish in the raw sewage pose a negative impact on the quality of the water that we pump to the desalination plant. Currently it is not a problem, but it will be if the sewage dumping continues." Israelis dump sludge and on some occasions also pump raw sewage into the sea. "I cannot tell you who is causing more damage - if it is Shafdan or sewage from the Palestinians," says Adar. "It would be easy to quantify, though, by calling Shafdan." Anyone in groups of 20, suggests Shoham, are invited to see the Shafdan facilities for themselves. Yuval Sela, Chief Engineer at Shafdan told Metro, "I am based in Tel Aviv. We process 95 percent of all the sewage for the Gush Dan region, about two million people in 30 cities. We are the biggest plant in Israel and our facilities are based in Rishon Lezion. The other five percent of the people in the area use old septic tank systems. We pump around 120 tons of sludge per day into the sea. The material is dry sludge and is mixed in a solution with 99% water. Into our facility we get around 350 cubic meters per day of sewage which is all treated in our wastewater treatment plant in Rishon Lezion. At the end of the process we have two products. "We have effluent," he says, "which is a good product which goes to agriculture in the Negev. Via Mekorot, the National Water Company, we pump 130 million cubic meters worth per year. We save about 10% of the country's water needs this way. It is great water. You can drink it. The other product, the bad product, is the sludge. We use a bar screen system. "The solid parts we are left with are hair and seeds that are small and not caught by the screen before it goes to sea. "It is not true that we send toiletry products like tampons to the sea, as far as I know. We monitor the Palmahim station twice a year and we see that undersea currents take the sludge and spread it around. The immediate area, except for about four square kilometers is not really affected by the sludge." Local swimmers, prevented from reaching the sewage dumping site at Palmahim, may be spared from doing the breaststroke around floating tampons and toilet paper. But one must wonder how the fish feel about this operation. Heavy metals anywhere are not good for the animals some of us will eventually eat. Is the government doing enough to protect us? According to written material supplied by Hadar Givati-Cohen from the Ministry of Environmental protection, Israel's Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines are "among the country's most valuable natural assets," characterized by "a rich diversity of natural, environmental, cultural and economic assets. Their protection - whether from the adverse impacts of pollution or from unwise development - is a national priority." The ministry has undertaken a proactive stance of late, by taking polluters to court. In December, the poultry meat processing company Hod Hefer Ltd. was fined NIS 80,000 for discharging polluted wastewater to the sea without a permit. Located close to the Alexander river north of Netanya, the factory normally sends its wastewater to a reservoir close to the plant. On more than one occasion in 2000, it was charged, the company discharged wastewater through a pipeline to the river, without the required permit from the Environment Ministry. The company was convicted under the Water Law and the Prevention of Sea Pollution from Land-Based Sources Law in April last year. "You can't accuse [Hod Hefer] of polluting - the court already did that," Eyal Talmon, a lawyer on the case, told Metro, adding that this kind of monetary fine had never previously been handed out to polluters. "We are appealing this case on the grounds that there was a fault in the piping. And besides, the penalty wasn't so big. It was a one-time incident, but the government said the company didn't do anything to prevent it. We couldn't until the problem in the pipe was obvious and it hasn't happened since," protested Talmon. Hod Hefer are not the only ones getting fined. On January 17 this year, the ministry posted a notice that the Safed Magistrate's Court is fining Merom Hagalil Regional Council, on Israel's northern border, for polluting water sources. The ministry found that the chairperson and officer responsible for maintaining the region's sewerage system allowed low-quality effluents to flow into the Hazon River on several occasions between 1998 and 1999. The defendants were fined NIS 200,000 and signed a NIS 250,000 guarantee that they will refrain from polluting in the future. Ultimately, the question is whether the enforcement of environmental laws has a significant effect on Israel's marine ecosystem. Officials at the Environmental Protection Ministry allude to evidence that it does. Data collected and analyzed by the ministry's Marine and Coastal Environment Division for the years 1998 to 2004 (and posted on the ministry's website) demonstrate that there is a drastic decrease of pollution in the sea. 'These reductions are attributed to consistent improvements in wastewater quality as well as to decreased discharges to the sea from some pollution sources,' the website notes. But some environmentalists are not so optimistic. In 2006, the marine conservation organization Zalul released independent research on Israel's Mediterranean coast. Warning that the state of Israel's waterways 'is alarming and government oversight [has been] inadequate,' the report concluded that if government and private industries are not more vigilant in their sensitivity to the environment, "our nation will be in trouble." The Zalul report was drawn from a study that revealed that most of Israel's 11 rivers and the country's portion of the sea contain harmful contaminants, heavy metals and pathogens. Zalul insists that seasonal monitoring by the health ministry is inadequate to assess Israel's water quality, and although there is a limit on how much and what kind of discharge is permissible in waterways, the health ministry does not make this information easily and fully available to swimmers, residents and tourists. The study pointed out that three quarters of marine pollution in Israel today is derived from land-based sources such as industrial waste and sanitary discharge. 'Our study shows that there are dangerous levels of contamination and deterioration at the majority of our beaches, which should be alarming to our government and business leaders. Yet there is no standard for the bacterial quality of bathing water in Israel,' wrote Zalul managing director Yariv Abramovich in the report. Zalul believes that aggressive public action must be taken to promote stricter legislation for the quality of seawater and rivers. They maintain that a critical mass of public involvement will help water preservation issues rise to the top of the public agenda. Founded in 1999 as a multi-disciplinary organization dedicated to protecting Israel's seas and rivers, Zalul is run by a paid staff and volunteers skilled in the areas of academia, environment, law and public relations. Zalul's National Project Director Sagit Rogenstein spoke with Metro about some of her most pressing marine environment concerns. "For sure, there is not enough enforcement of the law in Israel," she says. "The Environment Ministry's special unit for the sea doesn't have enough manpower to enforce the laws. But, when it hurts companies' pocket books, the polluters will become more caring," maintains Rogenstein, who believes that any company given a permit to discharge anything into the sea should have to pay for it. Currently in Israel, permits are free. As for the biggest polluters, Rogenstein points to the government-owned Shafdan sewage treatment facilities. "On most winter days, it is rather unsafe to go into the sea. We have helped encourage the health ministry to update beach safety in both the summer and in the winter." She points out a preventable source of marine pollutants: "If our citizens buy and use ecologically friendly-products, of course this would help. But this is a whole other level that Israel hasn't reached." As for taking a dive into the Yarkon River sometime in her lifetime, Rogenstein is optimistic, noting that the biggest rivers have a way of bouncing back. "If the pollution stops today, the rivers will be completely clean in only a few years," she predicts. And Israelis are certainly able to clean up their act when necessary, she adds, using the turnaround of Eilat's port as an example. "Less than seven years ago they were dumping raw sewage into the Red Sea. Now they have a high-tech installation to treat the sewage and it is even used by marinas and docked yachts." Eilat has put an end to the polluting, sea-based fish cages, adds Rogenstein. "After a six-year battle, the government decided to order them to clear out by 2008. In some cases, cages have already been removed. This was our biggest environment battle and victory." Another triumph for Zalul was leading the campaign to stop Herzliya municipality from spilling partially treated sewage into the sea. "They are now in the process of upgrading their sewage treatment facility. We had all the people in Herzliya turn against the former facility and by 2008, it will be upgraded." The fining of companies such as Hod Hefer was a step in the right direction of helping companies clean up their polluting effluents, agrees Rogenstein, but warns that a fine is still a much cheaper solution for polluters than forcing them to install treatment facilities on-site. Accelerating the process of improving marine ecology, she encourages, will take a great deal of public activism. She personally is fond of the tactics and philosophy of Green Action, a non-profit organization that promotes socio-ecological change through direct non-violent action. On issues of the sea, Green Action's head Avi Levi told Metro, "It seems only logical that human beings will spend their time with the garbage they produce. Paying attention to the place where it is being thrown is an escape from dealing with the real problem: a culture that is constantly persuading its members to produce and consume more and more. Change this notion and you will keep the planet clean, not just the sea." The beach blogger Freelance photographer Yudit Ilany uses the power of the internet on her web-based journal to confront social injustices in her beloved city of Jaffa. Once a day, every day, from her home in the Ajami neighborhood, she uploads powerful images of city scenes. They include Jaffa's dirt, scum, smoke and rust that some other Israelis, perhaps, would choose to ignore. Her snapshots oftentimes have accompanying texts that sarcastically and provocatively highlight neighborhood events: an overturned truck on Rehov Yefet that could have killed schoolchildren, a violent attack on her friend, a fire or the presence of raw sewage on Jaffa's beaches where she jogs. She writes, 'Although [the beach in Jaffa] looks clean, white and beautiful and feels soft, it was found to be full of bacteria, [fecal matter], and e-coli. So next time you take your toddler to build a sandcastle, you've been warned.' 'They're at it once again,' she wrote on January 8, 'Tel Aviv and Herzliya have permission to release sewage to the sea. Yep, in order to carry out maintenance of the sewage [sic] system, they will be releasing untreated waste into the sea today and tomorrow and they received permission for those acts, while warning the public not to bathe in the sea the next few days.' Ilany told Metro what she has seen and smelled by the sea. She knows of the existence of a two-kilometer-long storm sewer pipe near Manta Ray restaurant in south Tel Aviv, that she believes is also releasing raw sewage into the Mediterranean. "I run along the beach," says Ilany, "and at certain hours between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., it stinks. Almost on a daily basis they let sewage flow into the sea. The fishermen in Jaffa can tell you this. I go out with them on their boats as part of a documentary I am working on." A second outlet, visible on the beach further south in Jaffa, is loading its contents right on the beach, she claims. "Because of the bad sewerage system, when it rains it's like a huge shit river," says Ilany, who is concerned about government plans to divert the Ayalon river to Jaffa beach when the new light railroad system is built. "It would be nice to have another train track, but not if we have to pay for it this way," she says. "The population in Jaffa is weak and divided," notes Ilany, "We have about 60 non-governmental organizations here, but getting four or more people at one table is impossible… the community has difficulty organizing itself. If it was only [the sewage], you could say there are certain unpleasant things happening in Jaffa. But this is not the case - everything seems to happen in Jaffa." In response to accusations of raw sewage in Jaffa, Shafdan spokesman Shoham noted that the sewerage pipes in north Jaffa and by the Reading power station are "emergency pipes, which sometimes the municipality opens during rainy days." Besides, adds Shoham, "I love the sea as much as anyone in this country. I am a skipper and sea-kayaker who paddles between Herzliya and Jaffa every weekend. I really know every meter of this sea. A lot of people tell a lot of stories [about the pipes], and sometimes they are wrong. I am not saying that there aren't small factories sending things to the sea." What can I do? "If you care about the sea or any environmental issue," says Sagit Rogenstein of Zalul, "first of all, you should lead by example and make an effort to not pollute at all. Have you seen the way the beach looks in the summer after sunset? When you go to the beach, this is a good way to lead by example - by cleaning up any of your garbage, because what's left behind goes straight into the sea with the high tide." As for a deeper commitment, "It would be great if everyone got involved, but I don't want people to do only one thing," notes Rogenstein, who points to a number of active non-profit organizations that are always seeking volunteers to work on marine conservation causes, such as Zalul (, Green Course (Megama Yeruka,, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva Ve'din, and Green Action (Peula Yeruka, "Just call an organization to see how you can help. If you are a lawyer, you can help us lead a legal battle in courts; if you are a senior citizen with time on your hands, you can organize your friends and together write letters to your mayor. Every little bit helps." For a tour of Shafdan sewage treatment facilities call Gal Shoham at (03) 963-5123.