Israel's defense industry behind pollution of natural water sources - state comptroller

14 groundwater sites were contaminated by hazardous pollutants due to the activities of Israel’s Defense Industries, and IMI (now Elbit Systems Land) in particular.

Tar pollution on the shore of Israel  (photo credit: CEO OF THE NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY SHAUL GOLDSTEIN)
Tar pollution on the shore of Israel

Israel’s defense industry is responsible for contaminating more than 1.2 billion cubic meters of water with hazardous pollutants, a new document from State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman reported on Tuesday.

The report investigates the effect of fuel and industrial pollution on Israel’s groundwater sources, from which the majority of the country’s fresh natural water is drawn. It examines a total of 408 groundwater sites and the actions of the Government Water and Sewage Authority, the body responsible for their upkeep, rehabilitation and revitalization.

Israel’s groundwater sources are increasingly at risk of contamination due to industrial activity, fuels and the over-pumping of aquifers – the underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock from which groundwater is drawn. The largest cause of contamination by far, however, is caused by fuel-tank farms.

The risks of fuel-tank farms and the high-grade fuel pollutants they generate to the country’s water sources have been known for some time, with initial plans to regulate the industry having been first drawn up in 2004. However, the report states, the plans have yet to be fully implemented.

Of the 408 groundwater sites monitored by the Water Authority, almost two-thirds (64% – 262 sites) have an indicated presence of existing or suspected contamination. Despite this, only 98 of the sites have undergone rehabilitation operations, with a mere 12 of them having been finished to completion.

Elbit's EXTRA rocket system. (credit: ELBIT SYSTEMS)Elbit's EXTRA rocket system. (credit: ELBIT SYSTEMS)

A total of 203 sites have shown definite evidence of fuel pollutants contaminating the water source, and 36% of those are classified as severe or very severe. 

Responding to the report, the Water Authority stated that the rehabilitation process is "a complex procedure that requires mapping hundreds of sites and preparing groundwater rehabilitation plans at the contaminated sites." 

"The decision on the need for rehabilitation actions is determined in accordance with the risk assessment for water sources, public health and the environment and in accordance with clear priorities arising from the concentration of pollutants, the extent of the pollution and its characteristics," they added.

Of the affected groundwater sites, 14 were contaminated by hazardous pollutants due to the activities of Israel’s Defense Industries, and IMI (now Elbit Systems Land) in particular, the report found.

Over the last decade, polluted water amounting to over 1.2 billion cubic meters has been discovered at IMI sites across the country, starting with Ramat Hasharon, Givon, and Nahal Aravi ten years ago. Later, the contaminated water was discovered in Nof Yam, Tirat Carmel, and, five years ago, in Tel Hashomer.

Despite the investigation having first been launched over a decade ago, only two of the affected sites have undergone restorations, meaning that the remaining 12 affected sites have not been addressed, and continue to be contaminated with hazardous pollutants. Additionally, four of those sites have not even undergone preliminary investigations to fully understand the severity of the issue, and there is no plan, or funding, to do so in the upcoming future.

Turning to those responsible for the wellbeing of the water sources, Englman’s report found their actions to be lacking. The Water Authority has the power to issue an order instructing the person, or company, responsible for the pollution to cover the costs of a full rehabilitation to the infected source. However, the report found, over the past 10 years, merely two such orders have been given. This is despite the dozens of large-scale high-severity locations in need of rehabilitation. 

The report finds, therefore, that more could have been done to prevent the severity of the situation from reaching the place it has today.

The Water Authority, however, have said that the blame for the defense industry's lack of action does not lie with them, but rather with the Defense Ministry.

"Unfortunately, state bodies, in particular the Ministry of Defense, are delaying the allocation of funding required for the restoration of the sites that have been polluted by them, thus delaying the restoration," they explained.

However, that is not to say that improvements are not being made, Englman clarifies. The Water Authority is currently working to monitor and assess the industrial areas of Kiryat Aryeh and Ramat Sib in Petah Tikva, both of which were identified as high pollution risks 12 years ago.

Additionally, a joint tender has been established between the Accountant-General’s Division in the Finance Ministry, the Water Resources Ministry, and the Water Authority to promote the construction of a facility to treat the polluted groundwater at the IMI facilities in Ramat Hasharon.

The state comptroller concludes that the main source of pollution to Israel’s coastal aquifer is the country’s defense industry. However, the Defense Ministry, along with the IDF, the Water Authority and the Finance Ministry, has failed to act and as a result, the necessary rehabilitation operations have yet to be completed.

In conclusion, the report summarises, the relevant bodies “must act to correct the deficiencies listed in the report and examine the implementation of its recommendations, including the formulation of a multi-year plan for the treatment of pollution, the allocation of funding in accordance with the priorities set, and the removal of pollutants from various aquifers.”