The pathology of an oil spill

A ‘veritable terrestrial coral reef,’ the diversity of plant and wildlife in the Evrona Nature Reserve is threatened by five million liters of crude oil seeping into its soil

Pools of oil collect among the salt flats. (photo credit: YIGAL BEN-ARI/NPA)
Pools of oil collect among the salt flats.
(photo credit: YIGAL BEN-ARI/NPA)
For more than a week now, the press has run headlines proclaiming the “worst ecological disaster in the country’s history.” Horrifying images of black crude oil staining the sands and acacias of the remote Evrona Nature Reserve have been annotated with a rash of finger-pointing at the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC), the state company once again responsible for a major oil spill.
Just how bad was the impact? What caused it? And what are the prospects for recovery?
Acacia heaven
Many Israelis have never set foot in Evrona, a 1,600-hectare (3,954-acre) reserve some 10 kilometers north of Eilat. And yet, many ecologists see it as one of the most important corners of the country for biodiversity, a veritable terrestrial coral reef.
Dr. Uri Shanas recently stepped down as head of the University of Haifa-Oranim’s biology and envronment department. For more than a decade, his research brought him southbound to study this unique habitat. Along with Jordanian colleagues, he identi - fied a new spider species there (the largest of its kind in the Middle East), a finding recognized in 2010 by Dis - covery magazine as one of the year’s more important scientific breakthroughs.
Shanas explains that Evrona’s unique ecological status comes from its location on a salt marsh: “Salt marshes are becoming an endangered landscape in Is - rael. Of the four salt flats in the Arava, three are within Israel. One in Eilat is completely gone, and much of the most productive part of the Yotvata salt flat is taken up by Hai Bar [Nature Reserve] and the associated ‘gazelle zoo.’ That leaves the Evrona salt flat as one of its kind.”
Shanas points out that because Evrona is a relatively large area, all trophic levels – measured by the number of steps an organism is from the start of the food chain – can be found there, and it is home to the largest gazelle herd in the Negev. For the Negev gazelles, the innumerable acacias that flourish from Evrona’s high water table constitute an “all-you-can-eat buffet.” They in turn provide meals for wolves, caracals and hyenas.
When Shanas compared the biodiversity of the re - serve to the rest of the seemingly undeveloped Arava region, he found that it was the only locale sufficiently remote not to be affected by agriculture.
Not just animals frequent Evrona; many people come to visit as well. Bill Slott is a resident of nearby Kibbutz Ketura and considered by many to be Israel’s most colorful and humorous tour guide. But he gets serious when he talks about the iconic site.
“Evrona is a little hidden treasure for tour guides [and tourists, of course]. It has unique archeological remains, the biblical context [as one of the 42 desert encampments of the Children of Israel], the occasional glimpse of a gazelle, the flamingo ponds and the Doum palms – a little bit of Africa tantalizngly close to Jordan.
“It’s the place that I stop with visitors who have already been to Eilat but want to see something different.
It’s no surprise that [ Jordan’s] King Hussein and [prime minister] Yitzhak Rabin agreed to sign the peace treaty in Evrona exactly 20 years ago. It is a place away from war, away from strife, recalling simpler times.”
UNFORTUNATELY, EVRONA has the bad luck to be located along the route of the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.
A 1968 partnership between the shah of Iran and the Israeli government offered a cost-effective way to bring Iranian oil to Europe: Iranian oil tankers sailed the Red Sea and unloaded their crude at Eilat Port, where it was piped up to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, then shipped to Europe. For a decade, it made perfect economic and geographical sense. The 1979 Islamic revolution brought with it a loss of Iranian enthusiasm for joint ventures with Israel, yet the pipeline and the EAPC corporation remained.
Due to the sensitive nature of the Iranian connection, from its inception the corporation’s work enjoyed considerable secrecy. And even without an Irani - an partner, it kept very busy. There were periods – even as recently as 2011 and 2012 – when few oil tankers chose to utilize the Eilat jetties, and the pipeline was largely unused as a conduit.
But EAPC had long since realized that the pipe itself could serve as a storage facility; speculators could rent space there and store petroleum until prices increased.
During the past few years, though, with considerable turbulence in the region, Kurdish and other Mideast oil producers have availed themselves of this secure route to European markets.
The spill Ironically, it was environmental concerns that set the cascade of events in motion resulting in last week’s spill.
For years, there was consensus that Eilat’s airport, in the heart of the tourist city, constituted a significant environmental nuisance and safety hazard that needed to be moved. Environmentalists fought long and hard to prevent the new field from being built in Evrona. In 2001, they enjoyed a sweet victory when then-transportation minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak agreed to relocate it further north, east of the Timna copper mines.
It took more than a decade for construction to be - gin on the new airport. The developers asked EAPC to move its 42-inch pipeline, as it was lying precariously below the new runway. The company agreed and emptied the pipe so it could shift it westward.
On Wednesday, December 3, it was time to test the new infrastructure, and crude oil was sent up from Eilat. But suddenly, things went awry. In the trial run, at 7:45 p.m., a breach in the pipeline opened. Before the flow stopped, five million liters of crude oil had spilled out.
In its official press release, EAPC explained: “Due to what appears to be a technical mishap, whose source is not yet clear, a spill occurred on the line. At the time of the event, the company’s spill control system warned of a leak and gave an immediate signal to close the valves between these segments of the pipeline. The valves closed and isolated this section, which continued to spill from the remainder of the contents in the pipe.”
In retrospect, the emergency response was rela - tively quick – yet not quick enough. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund bulldozers working on the airport foundations were the first to arrive at the scene, and soon heavy equipment from around the area was pressed into service. Within half an hour, Israel Nature and Parks Authority rangers had managed to build a temporary dam to stop the flow of fuel.
Still, millions of liters had already escaped, draining into the many dry rivulets formed over the years by the occasional winter rains. Although the breakage in the line took place near the Arava highway, the crude flowed some 6 km. eastward across the reserve, almost to the Jordanian border.
A powerful odor wafted into Aqaba. Reports from Jordan told of some 80 affected Aqaba residents, who came to the local hospital with complaints.
‘Gazelles with black socks’ A week has gone by since the spill. Standing along - side a blackened stream bed, government biologist for the Eilat region Roy Talbi shares his despair: “I have been out in the field in these parts for almost 20 years, and I have never seen anything like it. Six days have passed, and you still get up in the morning, and ask: ‘How can we do it? How do you clean up 20 net hectares [50 net acres] of damaged lands, in an overall affected area of 100 hectares [247 acres]?’ “I know that it’s organic material, and that it comes from mother earth. But where do you start? Even now that we have taken out most of the big puddles, when a snake or reptile crawls across the contaminated land, it’s not clear that it will survive. Insects definitely won’t. They simply drown.
“This reserve is home to hundreds of gazelles – and they walk on a land which is now soaked in oil resi - dues. Their hooves fill up. I was watching a group this morning; they all looked like they were wearing black socks. And later, I saw a group of them that appeared to be limping. I have been watching gazelles for a long time, and I never saw a group limping.
“I tell you – I am very worried.”
Concern is focused on the reserve’s acacia trees.
There are thousands of them, and they are the keystone species that provides the basis for the entire ecosystem. Their leaves contain protein and enough water so that local gazelles do not need to drink. The acacia’s seedpods contain considerable protein.
Talbi points to the ground below an acacia, covered with blackened pods. “In the desert, this sort of organic material is priceless; it’s gold. But now it’s entirely covered in black. What are the animals going to eat?” Ecological researcher Shanas explains: “The land that was polluted will be lost for many species, and affect the distribution of everything from arthropods [some rare, such as newly discovered spider] to reptiles [including the endangered Middle Eastern short-fingered gecko] to gerbils. Dead and dying species can re - sult in the death of their predator as a result of secondary toxicity. All of the massive land disruptions made to treat the disaster will bring more changes, and more loss of habitats.
“And if acacias die or even simply have a decreased productivity, the gazelle population will be hurt. Undoubtedly, the event and the associated heavy machinery activities will add even more stress to the delicate gazelle population, followed by reduced fecundity.”
Prospects for restoration Since that unhappy Wednesday evening, the heavy equipment has been put to use around the clock; considerable quantities of oil have been collected and pumped out, and contaminated soils have been col - lected to be incinerated and cleaned. At the same time, workers have begun working by hand, using “oil-ab - sorbing pom-poms” to soak up the thick black slurry and bag it.
A week after the spill, the first impression upon reaching the site is the overwhelming stench of petro - leum, much like a visit to a newly laid asphalt road or an oil refinery.
The usually sleepy reserve is humming with activity: Progress is monitored in military-style headquarters set up by the INPA; an assemblage of mini-bulldozers is collecting dirt; Eritrean foreign laborers are bagging oils; and an assemblage of television cameras and reporters are taking it all in. Along the length of the spill, very little oil has percolated into the soil. The ground remains pitch black.
The threat of rains and flooding on Tuesday led to a mad rush to remove as much oil as possible, to prevent large quantities of crude oil from reaching the Gulf of Eilat and its sensitive coral reefs. In the end, there was only modest flow out of Ein Evrona, and none of it got very far south.
But what are the prospects for the Evrona reserve? The past actually offers some basis for optimism.
The Evrona spill is hardly the first major environmen - tal disaster caused by a discharge from an EAPC pipeline. In 1975, 10 million liters of crude were released in an adjacent pipe, some 6 km. southeast of the Evrona spill. Official cleanup reports from the period show a much more devastating baseline than that of Evrona, with enormous dark patches covering large swaths of land. Cleanup efforts at the time were minimal.
Visiting the site today, 40 years later, one can actually still see a few isolated black stains on the adjacent service road and vague patches on the land immediately around the site of the spill. But nature is resilient. A few acacias have died, but most are doing fine. Moreover, it is not even clear whether trees are struggling as a result of the many drought years that have decimated the acacia population throughout the Arava region, or the spill 40 years ago. There is surely no sign of any damage outside an immediate radius of 200 meters.
Then, in July 2011, 150 km. to the north, adjacent to the Tzin riverbed near Kibbutz Sde Boker, the pipeline was smashed during routine maintenance. A million liters of jet fuel escaped. The outrage of environmen - talists at the time was exacerbated by the fact that the company did not even report the event to the Environment Ministry, as it is required to do.
But today, save a faint hint of petroleum in the air, there are practically no signs that the Tzin was a picture of blackened devastation three years ago, much as Evrona is today. This is partly a result of the assiduous cleanup, followed by gentle landscaping work. But most of all, nature is doing what nature does best.
To be sure, the two events are totally different. The jet fuel released into the Tzin stream is lighter than the heavy oil in the Evrona spill, so it is likely to evaporate more quickly. The gravel base in this desert streambed is much more permeable than the clay base below the Ev - rona streamlets. And of course, the periodic rush of winter storms in Tzin purges much of the residue.
Conversations with a variety of experts who worked on the Tzin spill, who declined to be named, suggest they expect the same recovery to take place in Evrona, albeit at a slower pace. It is too early to make a call, but initial signs suggest that the acacias, some of them as old as 600 years, seem to be quite resilient, and appear to be withstanding the most recent insult. Their well-being remains the key question in assessing Evrona’s ecological future: Will the acacias be able to provide the calorie base to an entire ecosystem? Certainly, the spill caused acute damage to the ecosystem, and a host of species will suffer. But winds and rain will come, bringing new sands and stones onto the blackened land. The hydrocarbons will break down.
It will take a while, but there will come a time when it will be difficult to imagine the Armageddon of December 2014.
Another rivet In 1981, Stanford professor and renowned ecologist Paul Ehrlich proposed a parable that is now known as the “rivet popper hypothesis”: A worried passenger notices someone popping rivets out of the wings of the plane. The popper appeases the nervous passenger by explaining that there is a great deal of redundancy built in, and the plane doesn’t actually need all the rivets to fly. Clearly, however, at some point, one too many rivets will be lost and the plane will fall apart.
We just don’t know which one it will be.
So it is with ecosystems and species: We continue to assault them, without any idea when the collapse will occur.
Dr. Yehoshua Shkedy is chief scientist for the INPA.
He views the present incident in this context, calling the spill just  “another brick in the wall.”
In a moment of candor, Shkedy offers a profoundly pessimistic perspective on the prospects for nature, even in this most remote corner of Israel. “The Evrona reserve is surrounded by 360 degrees of hazards. In the ‘quiet’ east, it’s the border fence and military activity.
The west has a highway and untold networks of pipes and infrastructure; there is quarrying there as well. To the north is a new airport where planes will fly directly overhead. And now they want to run a railway to Eilat through the whole thing. How do they expect nature and a high-speed railway to share the same space? “My mother came to Israel in 1948 on youth aliya. I often feel that we are betraying the Zionist heritage of my family; we aren’t protecting our state. Every day a little bit more is lost. In Evrona, people will no longer see the beauty of the land.”
For those looking for more immediate scapegoats, there is no shortage of complaints that can be made about EAPC’s role in this, and previous events. Government officials privately expressed outrage at the fact the EAPC could not be relied upon to release accurate numbers of how much oil was actually lost.
The fact is that despite a very damning recent report by the state comptroller after the previous spill, EAPC still has not embraced an organizational culture of transparency. There’s certainly no legal framework for regulatory oversight, and no standards by which the public can judge whether the 30-km. distance between valves is reasonable or not. Perhaps things would have been different last week if there had been a valve every kilometer or two.
EAPC’s corporate perspective seems to be that spills are an inevitable part of pumping hundreds of millions of liters of oil around the country. It pays lip service to meeting industry standards, and is happy to pay the costs of cleaning up any collateral damage.
Little wonder it pursues such a path of least resistance: No one expects company officials to be accountable for the intermittent fiascoes. Nor are they expected to pay the public for the loss of beautiful public spaces or magical ecosystems.
This month’s Evrona oil spill is not the greatest ecological disaster in Israel’s history. Luckily, most of the reserve and all of the remarkable archeological sites are untouched. Yes, dozens of animal species in Israel are declining. But the draining of the Hula swamp, the poisoning of the Kishon River and even the expansive agricultural activity in the Negev all took a far greater toll on nature.
Nonetheless, it was an egregious ecological insult that will leave a scar on one of Israel’s most special sanctuaries. Ultimately, the spill is a symptom of a broader malaise. Underlying causes start with society’s addiction to fossil fuels, and go on to Israel’s insatiable need to grow and develop.
This latest spill serves as yet another warning that the Third Jewish Commonwealth is not moving in a sustainable direction – and that this generation is not meeting its responsibility to take care of its Promised Land.
■ The writer is a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and teaches and researches environmental policy; in 1996, he founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Stud es. He plays in the celebrated Arava Riders bluegrass band