Greek tanker is main suspect in disastrous Mediterranean oil spill

Tar washing up along 90% of Israel’s coastline could take years to clean up, experts warn

President Reuven Rivlin visits cleanup efforts at Herziliya beach after oil spill (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin visits cleanup efforts at Herziliya beach after oil spill
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
A Greek-owned and flagged oil tanker has been named as the main suspect in a major oil spill that drenched Israel’s scenic Mediterranean shoreline with tar last week.
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Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported Monday that the Minerva Helen is under investigation as the likely culprit in the spill. The ship is also suspected of being responsible for a major spill off the coast of Copenhagen, Denmark in January 2008.
The Greek company that owns the Minerva Helen denied the allegations saying that "during the period that the vessel was drifting offshore Port Said wawaiting her next employment, the vessel was not involved in any operation that nor in any other activity that could be connected to an oil discharge at sea.
"The vessel is classed with the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS). Minerva Helen is well maintained without any structural or other defects that could cause an oil pollution incident. It should be noted that on the 22nd of February 2021 the vessel was inspected by the Spanish Port State Control Authorities in Cartagena and was determined to be without any deficiencies or observations, and it was confirmed that the vessel was in a satisfactory maintenance and operational condition and without any defect."
The company also said it would cooperate with authorities on investigations and told Kan that it was not responsible for the Danish spill in 2008.
On Tuesday, Haifa Magistrate’s Court Judge Zayed Falah partially lifted a gag order on details of the investigation into the environmental disaster.
The Minerva Helen left Port Said, Egypt on February 11 en route to Israel. It allegedly experienced a significant leak in international waters, more than 50 kilometers off the Israeli coast, turned around and set sail for another port in Egypt. It is now anchored off the coast of Cartagena, Spain.
Environmental experts warn that the cleanup of Israel’s beaches could take years.
“I’ve been working for over a decade at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and I’ve never seen something like this before,” Roei Shtrauss, manager of the Sharon district at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, told The Media Line.
According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, some 170 kilometers, or 105 miles, out of 190 kilometers, or 118 miles, of Israel’s beaches have been damaged by the offshore oil spill, marking one of the worst ecological disasters in the country in over a decade.
“I don’t know what led to the spill but it was not reported to the Ministry of Environmental Protection,” Shtrauss said. “This is not right and it’s illegal. If they would have reported the spill, all of the organizations here could have prepared much better and not been taken by surprise.”
Evidence of the tar spill first emerged last week, when a 17-meter (55-foot) baby fin whale was found dead, washed up on a beach in southern Israel, as was other marine wildlife.
Thousands of volunteers are working on a daily basis to remove clumps of sticky tar from the country’s sandy beaches, which are popular with tourists and locals. The Israel Defense Forces also has deployed thousands of soldiers to help with the cleanup.
“The beaches belong to all of us,” a volunteer named Tiviet told the Media Line as she picked up small pieces of tar from the sand at Sharon Beach Nature Reserve north of Tel Aviv.
“The size of the pollution is so big that we need every person available to come and help,” she said.
Michael Raphael is the national coordinator of the Mediterranean People Campaign, a nonprofit coalition of Israeli environmental organizations that is pushing for the establishment of regulated marine-protected areas in the Mediterranean Sea.
“The issue is that the tar has gotten on the very sensitive ecological areas in the Mediterranean Sea and that’s going to be much more difficult to take away and clean,” Raphael told The Media Line. “That could take up to 10-15 years.”
The cost of the beach cleanup alone is expected to reach tens of millions of dollars, according to an initial estimate from the Ministry of Environmental Protection. However, the full economic impact of the incident remains to be seen and the government has promised to sue the responsible party for damages.
Experts have warned that the spill also spells trouble for another major oil project that Israel has planned. The country recently reached an agreement to transport Emirati crude oil by tanker to a pipeline in the Red Sea port city of Eilat, which was signed after the two nations normalized ties last year.
Over 200 scientists from Israel and around the globe have cautioned the Israeli government against the move, which they say could irreversibly damage the unique coral reefs in the Red Sea.
“The entire world is working to shift away from petrol and oil because of climate change and we are putting ourselves in jeopardy here,” Maya Jacobs, CEO of the Zalul Environmental Association, told The Media Line.
“Our prime minister ran to the beach to take pictures of himself as if he’s doing something to clean up the shore,” Jacobs added. “But [the government] didn’t transfer any money in order to be able to actually fund this.”
Others also lamented what they called a lack of government preparedness to respond to environmental disasters.
“Two to three years ago we understood that the Ministry of Environmental Protection has not been given the tools, authority or budget that they need to protect the seas from oil spills,” Arik Rosenblum, director of EcoOcean, told The Media Line.
For this reason, EcoOcean independently organized and trained a network of volunteers to be able to respond quickly in times of crisis. In addition, the organization’s state-of-the-art research vessel is used by researchers across the country.
“We’ve taken the ship out from Herzliya to the south in order to try to identify the situation as to the quantity of oil components in the water,” Rosenblum explained. “It shows us if there are perhaps more tar elements [that will] come and hit our beaches.”
On Tuesday, the Cabinet approved the allocation of $13.7 million to remove the tar from the beaches and repair the ecological damage. The Cabinet vote also requires Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel to within 30 days submit draft legislation on readiness and response to maritime oil pollution events. 
As tar continues to wash up on shore, authorities have warned the public to stay away from the beaches and to not go swimming until further notice.
With many Israelis cooped up at home for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hopes of some fun and sun at the beach have been washed out to sea, at least for now.