Who's fixing the sewage systems? No one

Or Yehuda pipe wasn't checked for blockages before it burst because there was 'no need,' officials say.

sewage 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
sewage 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Beaches are shut down every day. The streams that you used to play in as children are now running cesspools. A river of sewage is flowing from the Ono Valley into the sea off of Tel Aviv. Who's to blame? While it's easy to point fingers in every direction, there's actually a lacuna in the regulatory system itself: There are no regulations in Israel mandating maintenance of sewage pipes, environmental experts have told The Jerusalem Post. Rather than replacing pipes on a set schedule or searching for weak points or fissures, nearly every local authority only responds to blockages and burst pipes, according to Allon Zask, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry's Water and Streams Branch. Take, for instance, the Ono Valley pipe leading to Or Yehuda. Or Yehuda infrastructures manager Ginadi Sarnitzki said last week during a hearing that that pipe had not been washed out or checked for breakages recently because there had been no need. In other words, as long as it was working fine, there was no need to spend any money ensuring it wouldn't suddenly explode - even though the pipe had been in use for 20 years, and more and more municipalities had started to use it, vastly increasing the volume of sewage flowing through it. The summary of that hearing was released by the Environmental Protection Ministry on Sunday, when it announced it would be opening a criminal investigation of the Or Yehuda Municipality and quite possibly other relevant players like the Kiryat Ono Municipality and Egodan Environmental Systems. For the most part, sewage problems are dealt with swiftly and efficiently. There are thousands of hitches a year in the Tel Aviv area, David Jackman, CEO of the Mei Aviv Tel Aviv-Jaffa water corporation, told the Post on Sunday. Most of them are dealt with immediately. If there's a burst pipe or a leak, the area is flushed out, the pipe photographed and the repairs made, he said. Once in a while, according to Jackman, some sort of major problem like the Or Yehuda case occurs. However, routine maintenance, even when carried out, is not frequent. Jackman said the entire system was flushed out once a year and that the central area was photographed to check for problems once every six years. The water corporation hoped to increase the photographic monitoring of the entire system soon, he said. However, preventive maintenance of sewage systems is costly, and no municipality wants to sink funds into the never-ending project. Without regulations to enforce it, therefore, the maintenance that the aging systems around the country need won't get done. Instead, the Environmental Protection Ministry has to play catch-up, ordering criminal investigations into municipalities after the fact, as it did in the Or Yehuda case. Israel Union for Environmental Defense water scientist Dr. Shimon Tzok suggested mandating a 3 percent replacement of all piping in the country per year. "That way, all the piping would be replaced in about 30 years," he told the Post. The idea of preventive maintenance is routine in other areas, Tzok noted. "You don't wait until the brakes on your car go out before you replace them," he said. Aside from maintenance, no sewage system in Israel has a backup system in case it fails, according to Tzok. The Shafdan Sewage Treatment Center is currently building an eastern line that could partially back up its system, but that's it. No smaller municipality has done so. "In Great Britain, for instance, they have remote sensors. If a system goes down, they switch to a different pump," he said. Maintenance is low on municipalities' priority lists because it's sewage, Zalul deputy director Ezer Fischler contended. "They don't see sewage as the resource that it is. Treated sewage water becomes water for agriculture. They say, 'So what? It's just sewage,' and let leaks go on too long," he said. It's not just the Tel Aviv area that suffers from closed beaches and polluted streams because of the river of sewage. All up and down the coast, streams are polluted by sewage, Fischler said. "Look at the Kziv Stream [north of Nahariya]. When we were children, walking along the stream was like being somewhere outside of Israel. Now there's construction waste, household waste and sewage all over the place," he said. "The Kishon Stream [in Haifa] was polluted 19-20 times last year. Why? Because a tractor working along its banks kept rupturing pipes," Fischler declared, outraged. The Sorek Stream is polluted by Yavne and the Lachish Stream by Ashdod, he continued. What really bothers Fischler was the question of where the sewage fee every Israeli household pays as part of its water bill is going. "There are 1.7 million families in Israel, and they each pay NIS 600 in sewage fees a year. That's NIS 1b. earmarked for a specific purpose. I don't see the results of that kind of investment on the ground," he said.