Academics step up legal battle against Negev water polluters

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit, pitting academics against alleged major polluters, has been described as the largest environmental class action in Israel's history.

Prof. Alon Tal at Ein Boqeq Stream (photo credit: Courtesy)
Prof. Alon Tal at Ein Boqeq Stream
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A team of leading Israeli academics is intensifying its legal efforts to secure damages exceeding NIS 1 billion for the alleged chemical contamination of two bodies of water in Israel’s Negev desert.
Led by professors Alon Tal and Noah Efron, the academia-led class action lawsuit alleges pollution and severe ecological damage caused to the popular Ein Bokek stream and the Havurat Yehudah aquifer by two Israel Chemicals Ltd. factories – Rotem Amfert Negev and Dead Sea Priclase – during more than three decades.
The first-of-its-kind lawsuit, pitting academics against alleged major polluters, has been described as the largest environmental class action in Israel’s history.
Responding at the Beersheba District Court on Monday to denials issued by the factories, the suit claims that effluents generated by the factories between the late 1960s and 1996 caused pollution levels in the stream and water reserve to increase exponentially and currently exceed water quality standards by hundreds of percent.
“This case is unique because, for the first time, the Israeli academic community and the top experts from Israel’s universities have come together to take a stand against egregious polluting activities,” Tal told The Jerusalem Post. “These cases are extremely tough and complicated and, without a scientific dream team, it is very difficult to overcome the prodigious resources that the polluting industries have at their disposal. But that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
The lawsuit was first filed in March 2018, relying on Israel Geological Survey reports that huge quantities of aquifer water had been contaminated due to unacceptable waste-management practices by the factories, in addition to water sampling by plaintiff experts and opinions submitted by leading Israeli academics, including Stockholm Water Prize winner Prof. Gideon Dagan of Tel Aviv University.
While three paid experts appointed by the alleged polluter factories denied any connection to the contamination, instead proposing alternative explanations for the pollution, the academics now point toward a major peer-reviewed article by leading hydrogeologists Joseph Guttman and Avihu Burg, published earlier this year in Science of The Total Environment.
According to Guttman and Burg, the only potential source of contamination in the area that fulfilled necessary requirements was “the industrial complex located in northeastern Negev desert, south of the city of Arad (Mishor Rotem Industries).”
Any delay, the hydrogeologists added, to implementing a mitigation program, notably pumping the pollution plume, will “result in sharp increase in the mass of contaminated water that can be defined as ‘uncontrolled’ contamination.”
Additional evidence has been provided to the court by water chemist Dr. Amanda Lounsbury, a researcher at Tel Aviv University, who expressed “reasonable fear” that the pollution source and rise in radioactive values in the Bokek stream and aquifer were “the result of percolation from the effluent holding ponds and other facilities in the factories into these water sources.”
The contamination of Ein Bokek, Tal said, constitutes “an extreme example of the shameful complacence” of government agencies responsible for addressing industrial pollution of natural resources.
Water chemist Dr. Amanda Loundsbury at Ein Boqeq StreamWater chemist Dr. Amanda Loundsbury at Ein Boqeq Stream
“For decades now, government scientists at Israel’s geological institute have documented the massive contamination of the aquifer and the Bokek stream, and called for government intervention,” said Tal. “Unfortunately, for all these times, no government has been able to master up a thimbleful of political will to take on the powerful Israel Chemicals. And so the public stands to lose precious water resources.”
According to the academics’ response filed to the court, claims to the contrary made by the factories rely on highly-selective water sampling. Instead, stream contamination has actually continued to increase since the suit was originally filed.
Expressing confidence regarding their chances of success, either in terms of a settlement or damages awarded by the court, Tal and his team intend to create a publicly overseen fund to both restore the aquifer and to support public engagement in the protection of natural resources.