Expected rain spurs worry that Arava oil will spread

Rains forecast for Tuesday have put environmentalists on edge, as it will affect fragile local ecosystem.

OIL SLICKS from the burst Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline blacken the Evrona Nature Reserve, threaten vegetation and endanger wildlife. (photo credit: NIV ELIS)
OIL SLICKS from the burst Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline blacken the Evrona Nature Reserve, threaten vegetation and endanger wildlife.
(photo credit: NIV ELIS)
Just a few minutes drive north of Eilat, the air already reeks of oil. The arid bouquet of sand and acacia trees one expects in the valley, flanked by red mountains in Jordan and sandstone in Israel, has taken on the aroma of a gas station as streams of black oil snake their way through river beds.
Government clean-up crews are already working to remove the besmirched sand caused by Wednesday’s break in the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline that poured thousands of liters of oil into the desert. It is arguably the worst environmental disaster in Israel’s history.
Though the Environmental Protection Ministry has sucked up 1,000 cu.m. of the spilled oil in the Evrona Nature Reserve already and transferred 8,500 tons of contaminated soil into the Nimra landfill, rains forecast for Tuesday have put environmentalists on edge.
“If the rain causes floods, that will take the oil east and south, and deep into the soil. It will spread out and it will be more difficult to deal with,” said Elli Groner academic director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.
Already the situation is worrying.
The scant life that flourishes in the desert depends on water, which naturally flows to the lowest points in the land. The same grooves that pull water, however, pull oil, meaning that the spilled crude is spreading directly to the vegetation.
“If you take a satellite photo, you see that the oil is following the trees,” Groner said. “Wherever there are trees, there is oil around them and they will be poisoned by the oil, and hundreds of them will die within a few months.”
If that happens, there is no saying exactly how it will affect the fragile local ecosystem. The trees and other vegetation provide food for gazelles, insects and other wildlife. Killing them could collapse the whole ecosystem, he said.
Similarly worrying is the possibility that the rain will spread the oil into the gulf. The spill is on the “wrong side” of the watershed that leads to the Red Sea, with its coral and fish, and it could have similarly disastrous results there.
But Dr. Hanan Ginat, a geologist at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, says that chances of rain pushing the oil into the groundwater or the gulf are fairly low.
A different concern, he says, is what to do with the oil that remains in the desert. Further action to evacuate polluted soil with tractors and heavy machinery may end up doing just as much damage.
The spill happened just days before the Eilat-Eilot Green Energy conference, which was meant to promote alternative fuels and celebrate Israel’s achievements. For example, the whole area from Eilat to the Dead Sea is on track to be fully solar-powered by 2016.
“The State of Israel is literally pissing oil on the Eilat-Eilot renewable energy solar parade,” said Yosef Abramowitz, a solar pioneer and a member of the conference’s steering committee.
“This ecological disaster is a crude reminder that 99 percent of Israel’s energy for power and for transportation is this poison,” he added. “This government has utterly failed the environmental sensibilities of its citizens and has driven business out of the country, [including] most solar power companies and the electric car.”
Abramowitz called on politicians running in the upcoming elections to commit Israel to reach 20% renewable energy by 2020, as the EU has pledged.